Why Fake Christmas Trees Oh Tannen-Bum Me Out

My family's beautiful--but unfortunately fake--Christmas tree.

In a week or so, my family will begin the grueling, weekend-long process of putting up our Christmas tree. My dad will bring up the tree from the basement, piece by piece, before assembling it like Lincoln Logs in our living room. Then my mom will stand, squat and sit at its base for hours, trying to bend the wire branches into the perfect shape. When she’s done, the branches, sticking haphazardly in every direction, will resemble the disorder in a real conifer. But in spite of this seemingly natural, evergreen façade, our tree, like millions of others manufactured and sold each year, is anything but “green,” in the environmental sense.

In addition to being non-recyclable, non-biodegradable, and ultimately landfill-bound, most of this country’s fake Christmas trees are imported from distant parts of the globe, generating climate-changing emissions in transit. Despite saving families hundreds of dollars and preserving millions of real trees, fake trees promote environmental unsustainability and should be replaced with real firs or living, potted Christmas trees.

Though real trees are chopped down, they’re still environmentally sustainable. Throughout its lifetime, a single farmed tree absorbs more than a ton of CO2 and each acre of farmed trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people for one day, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Because growers must ensure a continuing supply of Christmas trees every year, farmers use sustainable farming techniques and plant one to three seedlings for each harvested tree.

The production of artificial trees relies heavily on nonrenewable petroleum. Most of today’s artificial trees are made with metal and polyvinyl chloride, a petroleum-derived plastic, according to Earth911.com, an environmental services company. The U.S. Commerce Department and the tree association report that 80 percent of those oil-based fake trees are shipped worldwide from China on petroleum-powered jets. Though real Christmas trees might be shipped across the country in gas-guzzling trucks, when fake trees are imported from China on planes, the international trip contributes much more to global warming. Because planes cruise in the upper atmosphere, the warming effect of plane emissions is 1.9 times that of carbon dioxide, according to an estimate by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change.

But even if you don’t subscribe to the impending crisis of global warming, real Christmas trees still come on top. The tree association reports there are about 15,000 Christmas tree-growing farms in the U.S., employing over 100,000 people in the industry full or part-time. It might be cheaper to reuse an artificial tree each year, but the economy doesn’t benefit from importing fake Christmas trees from China.

Another picture of our Christmas tree.

While it’s clear they aren’t saving American jobs, artificial tree owners will argue that they’re saving trees. About 33 million real Christmas trees are sold in North America every year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Each is cut down, shipped away, and decorated for a few weeks before being tossed out in the cold. In January, when the trees are left on the street for garbage collection, our street turns into a Christmas graveyard. That’s where fake Christmas trees come in: families believe they can “save” trees by reusing the same artificial one every year.

But you don’t have to have a fake tree to reuse. About 93 percent of real trees sold in America are recycled through more than 4,000 available recycling programs, according to the tree association. Some forms of “treecycling” include recycling the trees into mulch or chips for use in playgrounds, trails and walkways. They can also be used for erosion prevention: In Louisiana, Christmas trees are submerged underground and provide a wave break between marshes and hurricanes. And while the production of fake trees contributes to global warming, real trees are farmed, so cutting them down doesn’t change ecosystems long-term.

As other Christmas decorations become increasingly unsustainable (blow-up snowmen powered by portable generators?), it’s important to remember that replacing plastic trees with their natural counterparts will benefit the environment. To ensure future holidays aren’t tainted by the devastating affects of global warming, families should not buy artificial trees this Christmas.

My family’s artificial tree, decked with an eclectic assortment of ornaments, is one of my earliest and most beloved Christmas memories. In a few years, when our fake tree eventually breaks (it’s only a matter of time), I hope that my family is willing to let our traditions, like nature, evolve.

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