Help Save the Planet this Holiday Season—Cut Down a Tree

Written by Frank Lowenstein on . Posted in Uncategorized

As someone who’s worked at The Nature Conservancy for over 15 years, I suppose you could say I’m a professional tree-hugger. In fact, a large portion of my professional life has been spent protecting forest health. So what I’m going to say next may sound a bit out of character:

This holiday season, go cut down a tree.  And ask your friends and family to do the same.

Before I explain, ready for a really weird stat? Today, more than twice as many American families choose fake Christmas trees over real ones. Bah, humbug.

Yet, the question of whether a real tree or a fake tree is better for the environment has a clear- (ahem) cut answer. Real is better. Much better.

Of course, there are the holiday-spirit reasons: not even the highest quality car freshener, let alone a fake tree, can replace that wonderful pine smell that is so symbolic of the holidays. Plus, despite poor Ralphie’s infamous trip in A Christmas Story (“ohhhh fuuuuuudge”), there’s not a better family excursion than picking out the perfect tree together. But, these are the “ho ho ho” differences. Let’s get to the “oh, no, no.”

To get geeky for a moment, plastic trees are usually made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which is derived from petroleum. In other words, these bad boys are not recyclable or biodegradable. Once you’re done with a fake tree (which is an average of just six years), it will sit in a landfill for many lifetimes. In addition, PVC is known to be a potential source of hazardous lead, which has spurred the state of California to require warning labels on fake trees made in China. This issue is made much worse by the fact that 85% of fake trees sold in the U.S. are shipped from China.

Which brings us to perhaps the biggest issue: fake trees are a major carbon polluter. Between the distance-traveled (typically in diesel fuel-powered ships) before 85% of them even reach the U.S., and the electricity used to melt and manufacture the plastic (typically derived from coal-burning power plants – the dirtiest source of electricity) they’ve got a carbon footprint that competes with Sasquatch. You would need to continue ornamenting your fake tree for at least 10 but probably closer to 20 years to even compete with the carbon benefits of the real thing.

On that note, lets talk about what makes the real thing so great.

For starters, real trees grow in the ground for several years before they are cut (a rule of thumb is about one year in age per each foot the tree measures in height), absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere, helping keep our air and water clean, and providing habitat for animals. And buying a real tree is patriotic – supporting local businesses. The vast majority of Christmas trees today come from farms, about 12,000 of which exist in the United States. These farms grow more than 400 million trees, and farmers cut down less than 10% of those trees per year. For those trees that do find a holiday home – an industry that commands a market value of roughly $1 billion – farmers will plant one to three seedlings in its place.

What’s more, unlike the landfill destiny of the fakes, real trees will biodegrade – which releases nutrients back into the soil – and many neighborhoods offer curbside pickup as part of community “treecycling” programs.

So, this year, please do your planet, your family and your local Christmas tree farmer a favor—go au naturale. And, when your friends ask you what kind of tree you have, whether it’s a Balsam Fir, Douglas Fir, White Pine, or another species, you can tell them – with a little nod to Seinfeld – it’s real, and it’s spectacular!

Frank Lowenstein is Adaptation Strategy Lead for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team.

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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