Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Trees and the Environment

Are real or artificial Christmas trees better for the environment? The New York Times comes down on the side of real trees.

The balance tilts in favor of natural Christmas trees because of the way they are grown and harvested.

Close to 400 million trees now grow on Christmas tree farms in the United States, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents growers and retailers of real trees. About 30 million trees are harvested annually.

The living trees generate oxygen, help fix carbon in their branches and in the soil and provide habitat for birds and animals, Mr. Springer said.

Christmas tree farms also help preserve farmland and green space, particularly near densely populated urban areas where pressure for development is intense.

“It allows people with land that may not be the best farmland to have a crop that they can actually make a profit on, and not be under pressure to sell out to developers,” said Mike Garrett, owner and operator of a Christmas tree farm in Sussex, N.J.

After the holidays, real trees can continue to serve a purpose. New York City, for instance, offers free curbside recycling for trees, which are turned into compost. The city’s parks department also provides a free mulching service for trees at several locations after the holidays. In 2009, nearly 150,000 trees were composted or mulched in the city.

Artificial trees, by contrast, are manufactured almost exclusively in Asia from plastic and metal and cannot be recycled by most municipal recycling programs. After six to 10 years of use, most will end up in a landfill.
How much better natural trees are is subject to disagreement. A recent analysis by an environmental consulting firm concluded that a fake tree would have to be used for 20 years to have less environmental impact that buying a real tree annually. Industry groups making artificial trees argue that the difference is really five or ten years. In either case, the impact of a tree is probably smaller than choices we make year-round, such as commuting methods.