Natural or Artificial Trees? Which is Greener?

I attended a conference in Half Moon Bay, California last week and drove by several picturesque tree farms and pumpkin patches. This immediately made me think I should take my six year-old daughter to cut our own tree this year.

But before I establish a new holiday tradition, I thought I better research whether cutting our own tree is better environmentally than buying a tree from a local store, or even buying an artificial tree.

The way we assess decisions like this at GoodGuide is through a method called “Life Cycle Assessment” (LCA). LCA is a tool for analyzing the full impacts of a product across the different stages of its “life cycle” – from growing a crop or extracting raw materials, to manufacturing the product, to transportation, to using the product, to final disposal. It is often surprising to learn where the biggest environmental impacts are along a product’s life cycle, and to see which products ultimately are greener.

So which is greener: natural or artificial trees?

Most people reading this blog probably assume the answer is obvious: natural is more natural!

But after that truism, things get more complicated. Natural trees can sequester carbon. But they also require land, water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Artificial trees can be used for years and years. But they are usually made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) treated with potentially toxic flame retardants, and shipped from China.

Not surprisingly the American Christmas Tree Association – the trade association for the artificial tree industry – released a study in 2008 claiming that artificial trees are better for the environment than natural trees if you use them for over 10 years.

The ACTA study seemed largely unconcerned with the potential environmental and health impacts of manufacturing polyvinyl chloride, or the potential dioxin emissions if the PVC is burned at the end of its life.

A more recent, and more independent, Life Cycle Assessment conducted by a Canadian consulting firm – Ellipsos – came to very different conclusions. The 50 page report, with 4 appendices, and peer review comments, comes down on the side of natural trees.

When compared on an annual basis, the artificial tree, which has a life span of six years, has three times more impacts on climate change and resource depletion than the natural tree. It is roughly equivalent in terms of human health impacts, but almost four times better on ecosystem quality compared to the natural tree. The natural tree contributes to significantly less carbon dioxide emission (39%) than the artificial tree. Nevertheless, because the impacts of the artificial tree occur at the production stage, and since it can be reused multiple times, if the artificial tree were kept longer, it would become a better solution than the natural tree. It would take, however, approximately 20 years before the artificial tree would become a better solution regarding climate change.”

One interesting finding that both studies agreed on was that:

the most significant contribution to global warming came from fossil fuel consumption in transportation of real Christmas trees from tree farms and lots to consumer homes. The study also indicated that driving out to a tree farm and cutting down a tree is the worst environmental choice you can make when buying a Christmas tree and that it’s substantially better for the environment to buy a tree from a local retailer rather than to drive out to a farm, due to the incremental fossil fuel consumed.”

The bottom line: it is definitely not a good idea for me to drive to the mountains to cut down my own tree. The emissions from my car will swamp the other environmental impacts of the tree.

So my conclusion is that if I can’t convince my household to go for a living, potted tree – that unfortunately doesn’t look anything like a Christmas tree – we will likely purchase a farm-raised tree from a local store.

About Dara O'Rourke

Associate Professor at UC Berkeley and Co-Founder of GoodGuide.
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11 Responses to Natural or Artificial Trees? Which is Greener?

  1. William Rosenzweig says:

    Dara, I like your conclusion. Another option is to plant a tree in your garden each year and imagine it as your special celebratory symbol for the holidays. (I have been planting a tree every year for each of my children to commemorate their birthdays. By involving them in the planting process and engaging them in its care, it’s easy to dress it and make it special for the holidays.) I would imagine the LCA on a living tree would be positive in this respect. As another approach, you might contemplate adopting the celebrations of other religions that don’t involve harvesting or acquiring a tree. (The menorah and its candles can be magical during the holidays.)

  2. FL says:

    Why no Christmas Tree ?

  3. Tom Lent says:

    I note that the LCA study concluded the PVC tree was worse even though they did not address several important factors that would further bias against the artificial trees:
    – The LCA did not include the impact of PVC additives nor of the dioxin releases from burning of the artificial tree should it end up in a landfill fire at the end of its life. HBN’s assessments (and those of the USGBC when it studied PVC building materials) indicate that including this would push the health impacts far higher than any alternative.
    – The LCA modeled the impacts of electricity generation for the Chinese tree manufacture on European data. China uses far more coal, hence the global warming impact of the manufacture will be worse than stated.

    Meanwhile you can probably rationalize that romantic trip to the tree farm if you drive a Prius or better yet hold out until you can get a plug in hybrid. Then try to pick a farm that uses organic methods to reduce the chemical impact of their growing practices and enhance habitat.
    http://pickyourownchristmastree.org lists a couple of farms in the Bay area that claim to use organic practices (though none seem to have organic certification).

  4. sean says:

    I suchlike your happening. Added alternative is to being a tree in your garden apiece gathering and ideate it as your primary celebratory symbolisation for the holidays. (I make been planting a histrion every year for each of my children to observe their birthdays. By involving them in the planting affect and attractive them in its charge, it’s relaxed to clothe it and pee it specific for the holidays.) I would ideate the LCA on a extant actor would be positive in this detail. As another way, you strength contemplate adopting the celebrations of otherwise religions that don’t ask gather or deed a player.
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  5. Another consideration is that some artificial PVC Christmas Trees may contain harmful levels of lead.

    Researchers at the Environmental Quality Institute tested PVC trees a few years ago and found that, "while the average artificial Christmas tree does not present a significant exposure risk, in the worst-case scenarios a substantial health risk to young children is quite possible."

    In another study, researchers recommended, "These experiments indicate that it is probably appropriate to caution families with older PVC Christmas trees to thoroughly wash hands immediately after tree assembly and disassembly, and especially to limit the access of children to areas under erected trees."

  6. Rob Sylvan says:

    FWIW, The Christmas tree in that photo was a cut-your-own from a local tree farm that is closer to my house than the nearest store/lot that I could have purchased either an artificial or pre-cut natural tree. Thanks for using my photo!

  7. i think the natural tree are always the better because they are not only greener but they are also a part of nature to keep life process going on and on …………..

  8. Jodee Pedersen says:

    the most significant contribution to global warming came from fossil fuel consumption in transportation of real Christmas trees from tree farms and lots to consumer homes"

    Are artificial trees not transported from manufacterer to distributor to retailer and ultimately the consumer? I can’t see how the logistics and associated fuel consumption differ much. Granted a trip to the tree farm may be longer than a trip to the mall, however given 85% of artificial trees are imported from China, I suspect the fuel for the latter exceeds that of the former.

    Did the study examine the environmental impact of the packaging that contains artificial trees?

    Enviro issues aside, Other considerations such as supporting an industry that pays it’s tree assemblers an average of $100 a month; or the health factors of having a fake tree should be weighed. Of course then there is also the fact that taking your kids out to cut the family tree supports local business and when the day is done, is simply just lots of fun! :)

  9. Roger roof says:

    I prefer artificial trees as we cannot cut down tress especially at this stage of global warming even a short effort will make real difference.

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    Roger

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  10. Lakota says:

    Great post. I believe that natural trees are "greener", artificial trees don’t take CO2 from the air…

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  11. Kently Dee says:

    I totally agree with Roger. I love nature and totally pro-green living, but I’d rather go for <a href="http://www.artificialtrees.com/">artificial christmas trees</a> than real christmas trees. Why? because I can always reuse my christmas tree and would last like 15-20 years. In the long run, I already saved like 10 full grown Christmas tree that can take years of CO2.

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