BLOOMINGTON – Every year, families who celebrate Christmas begin the holiday season with a difficult choice: Should we get a real tree or an artificial one?
Aesthetics, cost and tradition may influence their decision. But whatever the outcome, that decision will have significant repercussions for the local economy and the environment.
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“The tradition of bringing evergreens into the home in the dark of winter has been around for centuries, starting in Europe,” said Doug Hundley, a spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, the national trade association representing the Christmas tree industry. “Family memories are built around going out and hunting a tree. A hundred years ago we did go into the forest and take wild greenery out. Now you can go to a choose-and-cut and do it.”
Hundley served as a North Carolina State University agricultural extension agent for more than 25 years and has personally raised and sold Christmas trees for more than 40 years.
He says he’s noticed a wasteful trend in society that threatens to displace the traditional Christmas tree business over time.
“We have had a tendency in the United States, obviously, to go with disposable and artificial everything. And that’s a shame, especially around Christmas time,” Hundley said.
An artificial tree may be a better decision for some families, but the switch from real trees is not without consequences.
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Real Christmas trees take about eight to 10 years to grow. Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources says Christmas trees are a renewable and biodegradable natural resource. Real Christmas trees filter particulate matter in the air, release oxygen and provide watershed protection.
Christmas trees, like other trees, absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas believed to be one of the causes of climate change. Trees sequester one ton of carbon dioxide for every acre of trees planted. For every Christmas tree sold, about nine more are left to grow and mature. Hundley says the impact of cutting down and removing a tree is offset by the continuous cycle of replanting.
“Every tree that we harvest, we're going to plant at least one back in its place,” Hundley said. “As a land-use crop, we think is it's extremely sustainable. Every year we don't even plow the ground in between crops. We develop ground covers in our tree fields that stabilize the soil.”
Christmas trees also have some environmental downside. They require lots of water to grow, and do attract some pests like elongate hemlock scale and balsam woolly adelgids that require pesticides to save the tree.
Most artificial trees are made of plastic vinyl chloride (PVC), a known carcinogen, that can be harmful if ingested, inhaled or, in some instances, touched. PVC cannot be recycled and is nonbiodegradeable, meaning artificial Christmas trees could crowd landfills for centuries. Additionally, about 85 percent of trees are made in China, where most electricity is generated by burning coal.
In a study commissioned by the ACTA, researchers found that an artificial Christmas tree must be reused for at least five years in order for it to have an environmental impact that at least equals the impact of the harvesting and sale of five natural Christmas trees.
Reuse and repurposing can reduce the environmental impact of both real and artificial trees.
Real Christmas trees can be recycled and turned into mulch, used as soil erosion barriers along lakes and rivers, or even replanted for future use.
Most cities and towns in Indiana have Christmas tree recycling and pickups.
Artificial trees can also have a life after the holidays. The trees can be reused for years, or they can be passed on to a new family. The PVC tree can also be repurposed and made into wreaths and garlands.
An estimated 27.4 million real Christmas trees were purchased in 2016, and sellers reported similar numbers in 2017. The steady sales are being threatened by increased sales in artificial trees.
In 2016, 18.6 million people bought artificial Christmas trees. That number increased to 21.1 million in 2017.
U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics point to the artificial tree boom hurting Indiana’s tree farmers.
During the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, Indiana ranked 11th in the nation for number of Christmas trees cut for sale. During the latest census in 2012, Indiana was ranked 17th. With the price of a tree averaging $75, the census reveals the loss of about $8.2 million per year for Indiana farmers.
“All the real trees that are sold in North America are grown in North America,” Hundley said. “So, when you buy a real tree you're supporting your local farmers. They're small farmers and so they're real people making a living.”
Most artificial Christmas trees are imported from China, and the economic benefits are distributed among the supply chain. The average price of an artificial tree is about $107, making the initial investment higher than a real tree. Consumers, though, could save money in the long run if they keep their trees for several years.
“We encourage consumers to choose whichever Christmas tree best fits their lifestyle,” said Jami Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association, the trade association representing the artificial Christmas tree industry. “Studies have shown that most artificial Christmas trees are used for an average of 10 years.”