O Christmas Tree

Christmas Tree

O Christmas Tree

By Kevin Fenstemaker, GIELR Staff

With Christmas season once again in full swing, it is time for many Americans to take lights, nativity scenes, and ornaments down from the attic to transform their homes into winter wonderlands.  But what about the centerpiece of this holiday tradition, the Christmas tree?  The tree has caused some debate among Christmas decorators, pitting holiday purists who extol the beauty and scent of natural trees against those who would rather have a state-of-the-art artificial tree, complete with fiber optic LED lights and an MP3 player to play their favorite holiday tunes.  So, from an environmental, economic, and regulatory standpoint, which is better? 

From an environmental perspective, this is an easy question to answer: real trees.  It might seem counter-intuitive that supporting an industry that cut down 24.5 million trees in the U.S. last year is the environmentally friendly option, but it is.  Harvesting Christmas trees does not deplete forests because Christmas tree farmers plant between one and three seedlings to replace each tree they harvest.  In fact, the Christmas tree industry accounts for around 350 million trees that would not exist if it were not for the farmers.  These trees help to stabilize the soil, protect water quality, provide shelter for wildlife, and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air

Artificial trees, on the other hand, are produced using a petroleum-based product called polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in a process that, according to the EPA, releases a dioxin that can cause liver cancer and developmental problems. And unlike real trees, 93% of which are recycled to produce mulch or serve other environmentally useful purposes, the average artificial tree is used for only 6 to 9 years before the nonrenewable plastic indefinitely takes up space in a landfill.

“Unlike real trees, the average artificial tree is used for only 6 to 9 years before the renewable plastic indefinitely takes up space in a landfill”

From an economic standpoint, it might seem more reasonable to make a single purchase that will last 6 to 9 years than to buy a new tree every year, but that mindset could produce negative consequences for the U.S. economy.  There are more than 15,000 Christmas tree nurseries that employ 100,000 full time or part time workers in the U.S. and in 2012, that industry created revenue of $1.01 billion.  Artificial trees, alternatively, are most likely not domestically produced; the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that as many 92% of artificial Christmas trees are imported from China alone.  So if tree shoppers want to keep their U.S. dollars in the U.S., real trees are the way to go.

From a regulatory framework perspective, real trees are also the responsible choice.  Whether it is the use of dangerous pesticides in agriculture or harmful chemical byproducts in manufacturing, both growing trees and producing artificial trees run the risk of creating environmental concerns.  To protect against these concerns, there should be a potent regulatory system in place.  Christmas tree farmers in the U.S. are subject to both federal and state oversight frameworks to preserve the health of the environment.

For example, there has recently been some concern that a fungus called Phytophthora ramorum has emerged in tree nurseries across the country.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and local regulatory bodies have responded by quarantining affected areas and notifying recipients of any trees that have been in a past affected area to reduce any harm caused by this deadly tree disease.  Conversely, China, the source of the vast majority of artificial trees, has been characterized as having weak enforcement of environmental regulations.  A lack of oversight could have serious negative consequences, especially considering the potential harm that artificial tree production can cause.

“A lack of oversight could have serious negative consequences, especially considering the potential harm that artificial tree production can cause”

So while a real Christmas tree might not be able to play Jingle Bells or come in every color of the rainbow, when shoppers consider the environmental, economic, and regulatory concerns that go with choosing a tree, it is clear that they should be putting their presents under a real tree this holiday season.