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A fake Christmas tree or a real one? The question that just won't go away

christmas tree
Wikimedia Commons
“Happy Christmas,” painted by Johansen Viggo (1851–1935)

It’s beginning to look a little like Christmas even over at Mother Jones, where yesterday’s front page grabbed my attention with the image above and the headline, Should I Buy a Fake Christmas Tree or a Real One?

It’s a little surprising that this decades-old question of live pine vs. plastic is still being asked, but maybe it’s encouraging, too, that folks still care about doing the right thing. And the answers have changed — not a lot, but at least a little.

Here’s some of what I learned about the contemporary wisdom from MoJo’s Jaeah Lee and from wanderings her piece inspired:

Live trees outnumber artificials about 3 to 1 in American homes, with about 33 million being cut and sold each year.

Lee found the latter figure over at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's page of fun holiday facts, and it’s only slightly higher than a U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate of 31 million.

Not sure where the ratio came from. But if we take the larger sales figure and increase it by one-third, to say that  roughly 44 million trees of either type  go on display each year, then by my calculations only 38 percent of the nation’s 114,761,359 households have some kind of tree — and 62 percent don’t bother.  

Interesting statistics, if true. Would you have guessed total tree use was that low?   

Fakes are gaining market share

Lee also advises us that

artificial trees are quickly gaining popularity: According to the Christmas Tree Checkoff Task Force, a group of industry producers and importers, the market share of natural Christmas tree sales declined by 6 percent between 1965 and 2008, while the share of fake trees multiplied more than sixfold in the same period.

Here she’s drawing on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s promotional program – funded by producers  – to reverse that trend.

To the USDA, Christmas trees are an agricultural commodity, and no wonder: All but 2 percent of live trees sold nowadays were farmed for the purpose.

And according to the same USDA report, there were some 12,000 Christmas-tree farms operating in 47 of the 50 states as of a few years ago, with three-fourths of total production coming from Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Imports on the rise

But the producers are facing competition not just from fakes but also from imports. USDA says foreign trees are selling at a rate averaging 2 million annually in recent years, with Canada supplying 99.72 percent of these. Want to guess which three countries supplied the rest? (See answer at end.)

As for artificials, “According to data supplied by the [industry] proponents, artificial tree purchases have increased from 9.8 million in 2003 to 17.4 million in 2007."

OK, so now that three-to-one ratio may not quite compute, especially since most fake trees are used for more than one year. I looked around for better statistics but didn’t find anything definitive.

As for the current thinking on which option is earth-friendlier, Lee says most environmental groups “argue that real trees are better mainly because fake ones are made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a nonrecyclable plastic. Many also balk at the fact that the bulk of plastic trees are imported from China, enlarging their carbon footprint.”

Lee also gives a lot of weight to Christmas-tree plantations' contributions as carbon sinks, creating positive offsets of globe-warming CO2 emissions. That's a serious subject that deserves some space,  so I'll hold it for another day.

A life-cycle impacts analysis

Especially interesting is the study she highlights by Ellipsos, a firm of Canadian consultants working on sustainable development. Looking at factors ranging from aquatic acidification to mineral extraction to human toxicity, the authors concluded that

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 hot topic these days is climate change. When looking at these impacts, 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.

So there you have it, the 21st-century solution to the ageless quandary of which to buy, real or fake: Buy the fake and use it for 20 years.

My mother could have told you that, and with personal experience to back it up.

* * *

According to USDA, the remaining 0.28 percent of America’s imported live Christmas trees from 2006-2008 came from Italy, Colombia and Mali, and the Italian trees were of especially elegant material and design. OK, I made up that part about the elegance.

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