Christmas Trees Cultivating Climate Change Christmas Trees and Climate Change

Artificial trees are not as green as people think.

FLAKS: 95 million Americans will have a Christmas tree in their homes this year. A survey conducted by the American Christmas Tree Association says 65 percent of those trees are artificial. Artificial trees are commonly thought to benefit the environment – but their production has an impact on climate change. N-C-C News reporter Julia Kelly explains why choosing a fake Christmas tree isn’t so green.

(NAT of tree being baled)

KELLY: With the holiday season comes a question: buy a real Christmas tree or skip the hassle and use a fake tree? Stacey Jones – the buyer for Chuck Hafner’s Garden Center – always has Christmas on her mind.

JONES: We start setting up in October. The room has to be all ready by the first weekend in November. And then I go right back to it.

KELLY: The room is decorated with well-lit Douglas firs made of polyvinyl chloride – P-V-C – and aluminum. Tripti Bhattacharya – an earth sciences professor at Syracuse University – says the production of these materials emits greenhouse gasses – like Carbon Dioxide – into the air.

BHATTACHARYA: We can make different choices and we can sort of avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

KELLY: The fuel used for shipping the trees to the U-S contributes to climate change.The U-S Commerce Department says that 80 percent of fake trees are shipped from China. Bhattacharya says changing the way fake trees are made can help.

BHATTACHARYA: Turn them into a commodity that is reusing and recycling material that we know ends up polluting ecosystems. Rather than using fresh PVC or fresh aluminum.

KELLY: Another problem with artificial trees is that they don’t decompose.

BHATTACHARYA: Most of our plastics will break down into tiny – tiny micro particles and end up in our rivers and in our ocean.)

KELLY: Despite the environmental effects of making fake trees – David Newman – chair of the Forest and Natural Resources Management department at SUNY E-S-F – says it all comes down to personal preference.

NEWMAN: I’m chair of a forestry department. I still use an artificial tree. I believe my impact on the environment is not any harsher than someone who is going out and cutting trees down.

KELLY: Newman says that because artificial trees are can be used for several years – their impact on the environment is minimal.

KELLY: The National Christmas Tree Association survey says 21 point one million new fake trees were purchased in 2017. An increase of three million fake trees since 2016.

(NAT music inside Chuck Hafner’s)

KELLY: At Chuck Hafner’s they sell about 200 artificial trees every December. Jones says the experience of picking a real tree is so different.

JONES: There’s lots and lots of trees to choose from. So – you get to kind of walk among the trees and smell the real trees and pick out a tree.

KELLY: But the people who buy fake trees are mostly concerned with convenience.

JONES: They don’t have to worry about it dying or the needles dropping. Pre-lit trees are easy the lights are already on them – so you just plug it in.

KELLY:Chuck Hafner’s tries to keep it local. They grow their own trees on a farm in Kirkville – New York. They also sell artificial trees made by Holiday Concepts and Regency – two American companies.

BRIGGS:It’s totally built by nature compared to artificial trees which are largely produced in China. Produced of petroleum products and not recyclable.

KELLY: Russell Briggs – an environmental science professor at SUNY E-S-F – says that a person would need to keep their artificial tree for 10 to 20 years to make up for the carbon footprint. Most artificial trees are kept for half that time. Real trees simply become compost.

BRIGGS: They’ll end up on someone’s lawn. They are like a crop. They need a little bit of fertilizer – but they are pretty much sustainable.

KELLY: After they are thrown away – artificial trees take over 500 years to break down in landfills. Julia Kelly – N-C-C News.


Hundreds of well-lit trees decorate the main room of Chuck Hafner’s Garden Center in Syracuse. Stacey Jones, the buyer for the garden center, said customers walk through the entrance to choose an artificial tree. 

“We call it our forest … the past few years people have been looking for something that looks more like a real … this year everyone wants multi-colored lights,” she said.  

Each year on average 27.8 million new artificial trees are purchased for the holidays. Tripti Bhattacharya, a professor of earth sciences at Syracuse University, said that the manufacturing of these trees can have a serious impact on the environment.  

“Our biggest sources of CO2 emission come from fossil fuel burning,” said Bhattacharya. “Part of it is industrial production … manufacturing artificial Christmas trees will definitely impact fossil fuel emissions and pollution.” 

Bhattacharya said that one person’s action can add up to a massive impact.  

“Individual choices are like drops in the ocean, but if you make it easier for people to make those choices you can have a much larger impact on society,” Bhattacharya said.  

The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that for every real Christmas tree harvested three more seedlings are planted. Russell Briggs, an environmental science professor at SUNY ESF, said that the real thing is more sustainable.  


Man baling a Christmas tree in plastic wire
At Chuck Hafner’s customers have the option of Fraser Fir, Douglas Fir, Balsam Fir, and Blue spruce. You can cut your own tree at their tree farm in Kirkville, NY.
© 2018 Julia Kelly

“The flaws are Christmas trees are a crop,” said Briggs. “You have land allocated for a crop that’s land that’s not being developed.” 

Briggs said that paving over land for industry is one of the main causes of destruction to the ecosystem.  

David Newman, chair of the Forestry and Natural resources department at SUNY ESF, said the impact of trees on the environment is minimal because Christmas only comes once a year.  

“Christmas trees are a very specialized market … it’s a small niche market,” said Newman. “I would say the environmental impact is pretty small.” 

He himself uses an artificial tree. 

“I like the fact that the tree already has lights on it, and I don’t have to mess with lights,” he said. “It all comes down to personal preference.”  

At Chuck Hafner’s you have the option of both fake and artificial trees. Jones said that by far the garden center sells more real trees.  


People looking through fake trees.
The National Christmas Tree Association said the average cost of a fake tree in 2017 was 107 dollars. That is 32 more dollars than the average cost of a real tree in 2016.
© 2018 Julia Kelly

“We have two greenhouses devoted to real trees,” said Jones. “You get to choose because there’s lots and lots of trees to choose from.”

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