It’s the centerpiece of the biggest holiday of the year for many American families: the Christmas tree, the focal point for parties and presents, replete with favorite ornaments and lights.
Some cherish the scent of a real tree and the tradition of bringing it home, while others prefer the tidier plastic option.
Which is better for the environment?
Here is a look at some of the central claims — and common misconceptions — in the debate.
Cutting down trees is bad for the environment: This is false.
Don’t feel bad about cutting down a tree for the holiday. Christmas trees are crops grown on farms, like lettuce or corn.
They are not cut down from wild forests on a large scale, said Bert Cregg, an expert in Christmas tree production and forestry at Michigan State University.
A 5- or 6-foot tree takes just under a decade to grow, and once it is cut down, the farmer will generally plant at least one in its place. The trees provide benefits as they grow, cleaning the air and providing watersheds and habitats for wildlife. They grow best on rolling hills often unsuitable for other crops and, of course, are biodegradable.
Oregon is the country’s biggest grower, followed by North Carolina. Many other states have sizable Christmas tree farms, which preserve open land from development by their very existence.
Big growers tend to dominate in Oregon, like Holiday Tree Farms, which uses helicopters to harvest about a million trees annually, for sale at big box stores and other locations.
In western North Carolina, the farms tend to be smaller, like the one owned by Larry Smith, who has been growing trees for more than 40 years.
His business, Mountain Top Fraser Fir, was chosen to supply this year’s White House Christmas tree, a 19-foot specimen on display in the Blue Room.
“Tell the kids and grandkids to keep buying real trees so we keep the local economy strong and we don’t have to sell the land to the rich people from New York City to make condos,” Smith said.
Prices for real trees reached record highs over the last few years because farmers planted fewer trees during the 2008 recession. That may drive some families to buy a manufactured one.
The average price was $75 for a real tree last year, while the average price for an artificial tree — which can be reused — was $107, according to a Nielsen/Harris poll conducted on behalf of the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents sellers of real trees. Tim O’Connor, a spokesman for the organization, said the best way to ensure future supply was to buy a tree this year
Reusing an artificial tree reduces its environmental impact: This is true.
A recent survey for the American Christmas Tree Association, conducted by Nielsen, found that three quarters of American households display a tree — and around 80 percent are artificial.
Most of the artificial trees are made of PVC and steel in China and shipped to the United States — and eventually sent to a landfill.
While that may not sound eco-friendly, the ACTA, which represents manufacturers, claims the environmental impact is lower than that of a real tree if you use the artificial tree for five or more years. The group argues that getting a new, real tree each year — and possibly disposing of it in a landfill at the end of the season — has a bigger impact on greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy use, and other areas than a reused artificial tree does.
That assertion is based on a study carried out on the group’s behalf by WAP Sustainability Consulting.
O’Connor of the NCTA, the organization that represents sellers of real trees, said he rejected the study’s findings, saying it was “fall-off-your-horse simple that a tree made out of oil, turned into PVC plastic in China and shipped over on a boat, cannot be better than growing a real tree.”
Cregg, the forestry expert at Michigan State, said the study’s parameters were too narrow. What about the effect on wildlife and local water supplies, he asked, and the benefit of preserving farmland and jobs?
Thomas Harman, founder and chief executive of Balsam Hill, a high-end artificial tree company, said his factories recycle scrap plastic for use in some components of their products. Manufacturing a recyclable tree has been challenging. The copper, steel and plastic that are fused together in the production process would need to be taken apart to be recycled.
In the meantime, he encouraged people to reuse trees and to adorn them with LED lights, which save energy.
“We’re focused on making our trees reusable as long as possible,” Harman said. “I hope that our trees are in use 20 or 30 years later.”
The greenest real tree is the one that is bought locally and recycled: This is true.
The preference for real trees is strongest in the Northeast and along the West Coast, data from the ACTA shows.
O’Connor said younger, environmentally conscious consumers are increasingly embracing real trees. Some families enjoy visiting farms to choose and cut their trees.
Bill Ulfelder, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in New York, said real trees were “unquestionably” better.
He added that there are ways shoppers can lessen the impact of using a real tree: Shop locally, minimize driving and recycle the tree.
New York City collects thousands of trees for MulchFest each year, and uses the mulch in public parks to enrich soil and prevent erosion. Some areas use discarded trees to prevent beach erosion or in lakes to create fish habitats.
You can avoid the need to discard an old tree. Some vendors sell living Christmas trees that can be replanted. Others rent traditional Christmas trees, complete with delivery and setup.
The tree is a drop in the bucket in this season of air travel and consumerism: This is true.
Brad McAllister, a managing director of WAP Sustainability Consulting, said he was surprised by how small the impact of either tree choice was compared with other central elements of the holidays, like air travel and shopping.
“If a consumer wants to celebrate the holidays in a truly environmental fashion, they need to look beyond just the Christmas tree,” he said.
Jami Warner, executive director of the ACTA, was eager to avoid a direct confrontation on the issue of real versus artificial.
“We really do believe that there is no such thing as a bad Christmas tree,” she said.