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Which is Greener: An Artificial Christmas Tree or a Fresh Cut One?

December 12, 2011

It’s a familiar debate in the month of December. Eco-minded consumers want to know which is more sustainable: a fresh cut Christmas tree or an artificial one?

This year, an ISO-compliant third-party peer reviewed Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) gives us some insight and helps clear up common misperceptions about the environmental impacts of Christmas trees.

The study, conducted by the international research firm PE International, found that ultimately, consumers need to consider a number of different factors before deciding which type of tree is more environmentally friendly. For instance, the findings show that length of ownership, disposal method and “tree miles” can make a difference regarding which tree is more “green.”

The ISO-compliant third-party peer reviewed LCA was sponsored by the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), a non-profit organization representing artificial Christmas tree retailers and real Christmas tree retailers.  Based on the results of the study, the ACTA recommends that consumers demonstrate responsible consumerism by following these steps:

  1. Purchase locally grown Christmas trees if possible.
  2. Consider “Tree miles.” How far did the tree travel to get to your home? How far did you travel to get it?
  3. If you have purchased more than nine cut trees over the last nine years, consider purchasing an artificial tree to minimize your environmental impacts.
  4. If you own an artificial tree, make sure and keep it in use for at least six to nine years.  If you plan to replace an artificial tree, donate it before you dispose of it.
  5. Properly dispose of your natural cut Christmas tree by checking with your local waste authority.

The study also revealed an “Eight Christmas Environmental Payback Period” between the artificial and live cut trees. The study found that the environmental impacts of one artificial tree used for more than eight Christmas’ is environmentally friendlier than purchasing eight or more live cut trees over eight years.

As this LCA points out, responsible consumerism is typically multi-faceted and complex –and it demands our attention not just at the holidays, but throughout the entire year, as well.

“Our members have been urging consumers to choose the Christmas tree that best fits their lifestyle, be it real or artificial,” said Jami Warner, Executive Director of ACTA. “ACTA encourages responsible consumerism. Consumers should consider the impact on the environment for every item they purchase, not just Christmas trees.”

The 109-page report, Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of an Artificial Christmas Tree and a Natural Christmas Tree, is available here.

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