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The Great Christmas Debate: Real or Fake Tree?

by Jamie Schmid

It’s that time of year when Christmas trees take over the town. They line the outsides of the supermarkets. They become the prime crop at garden centers and they take rides strapped to the roof of cars. The scent of pine in one’s home is exactly what draws many Americans to buy a real Christmas tree. It is the natural choice.

According to a 2013 survey by the American Christmas Tree Association, about 25 million real trees were sold compared to 11 million fake trees.

However, contrary to dominant trends, many people believe buying artificial trees is more environmentally friendly. Claire Howard, a freshman environmental engineer at Northwestern explains her thoughts on the matter.

“My family always uses an artificial tree for Christmas. We figure that it is one less tree being cut down year after year,” she said.

And so the great debate begins: which type of tree is better for the environment? Advocates for artificial trees and advocates for real trees both present viable arguments on why their option is the better choice.

The argument against cutting down a real Christmas tree is just that: in an age of deforestation why continue cutting down trees for such an unnecessary purpose? Similarly, spokespeople for artificial trees argue that raising Christmas trees results in the consumption of thousands of gallons of water that could otherwise be conserved.

Robert Dungey, the spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, spins the water consumption issues back on the artificial tree advocates.

“How much water did the factory in China use to make the fake tree?” he retorts. “And how much water and resources were used to extract the petroleum and metal out of the ground to make that raw material?”

The National Christmas Tree Association also notes that most artificial trees are made of polyvinyl chloride, more commonly referred to as the harmful plastic PVC. Whereas natural trees decompose after disposal, artificial trees end up in landfills. This means that PVC could leach into nearby land and water resources and cause chemical poisoning in humans and animals.

Another point of contention is the environment in which the trees are produced. A large percentage of Christmas trees are raised in Christmas tree farms, challenging the argument that real trees cause deforestation. In fact, until they are cut, these trees help remove CO2 from the air and purify groundwater. Recently, however, Christmas tree farms have received more heat for using harmful pesticides in order to protect the trees from bugs and rodents. Meanwhile, most artificial trees are produced in Chinese factories, which use coal-generated electricity. With all this back and forth one may be wondering, what is the answer to the great debate? The answer: there is no debate.

According to a 2011 study by Life Cycle Analysis, both types of trees barely have any palpable negative impact on the environment. The amount of time the tree is owned, the method of disposal, and the amount of miles needed to transport the tree can make a difference, but on a case to case basis. A private environmental consulting firm in Montreal found that a family would have to use an artificial tree for 20 years in order for it to be a significantly greener choice. Yet, even this number can vary.

If you use an artificial tree for 40 years will you make less of an environmental impact than buying a real tree each year? Probably. However, given the fact that most families do not use an artificial tree for up to 40 years (or even 20 years), the environmental difference between real and fake trees is negligible.

While there really is no debate, there is a guarantee that the Christmas tree argument will continue next season. Americans love their Christmas trees, real or artificial.

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