AskPablo: Pine or Plastic? The X-mas tree dilemma

x-mas tree.jpgTurkey day has come and gone, the Black Friday riots at the mall are over and X-mas 2006 is officially upon us. But this year we are faced with quite an ethical dilemma: Do we go to the forest and harvest our own Christmas tree or do we get a fake one?

Yes, they are obscenely tacky and don’t make your house smell like a coniferous forest but they won’t dry up and shed their needles all over the place before spontaneously combusting. And there’s the whole carbon sequestration issue… If you cut down a tree in the forest, you are taking away its ability to sequester carbon for many years to come. So, from the perspective of a world that already has more carbon dioxide than we know what to do with, which is better, a cut tree or a fake one?
Let’s start with the fake tree. I pick a model that is made in China, and weighs about 35 kg. The frame is made from steel and weighs about 25 kg. The remaining weight consists of small plastic parts made from high-density polyethylene, weighing about 3 kg, the “needles,” made from polyethylene foil and also weighing about 2 kg, and the pre-strung Christmas lights which consist of 2 kg of PVC, 2 kg of copper, and 1 kg of glass. Using the MIPS data tables provided by the Wuppertal Institute, I can determine that the amount of CO2 emissions from the extraction and production of the materials used is around 28.983 kg. Let’s add to this a 25% increase to take into account the manufacturing of the fully-assembled tree ( 28.98 kg + 7.25 kg = 36.23 kg). At 17 g/tkm, shipping 35 kg (0.035t) from China (10,000 km) is responsible for an additional 5950 g (5.95 kg) of CO2 emissions. So the estimated total CO2 emissions for the fake tree are 42.18 kg.
Now lets find out how many years you have to own this tree to justify the emissions from production compared to the carbon sequestration services provided by live trees. Well, it turns out that trees sequester somewhere around 172 kg (some as low as 36 kg, some as high as 342 kg) of CO2 per year. This would indicate that it is far more ecologically friendly to buy a fake Christmas tree once, at a CO2 cost of 42.18 kg, than to cut down a tree every year at a CO2 cost of 172 kg (annual for at least 25 years). Please note that this is not the amount of CO2 emitted by cutting the tree down, but the amount of CO2 not sequestered by the tree because it is now dead.
But wait, is there more to it? Well yes, there’s always more. Most Christmas trees are grown on tree farms and not in actual forests. These tree farms sequester CO2 constantly during the young trees’ period of vigorous growth. Since they were grown for eventual harvest, we are not actually decreasing the amount of CO2 sequestration capacity, but increasing it. What about other options? Well, I have a live Christmas tree in my room. The potted, live Christmas tree is a great alternative for many reasons. If you keep it properly watered it will not dry out, shed, and become a fire hazard. It will also continue to provide that pine-fresh scent throughout the holidays. But the best reason is that, when you are done with the tree, you need not kick it to the curb like your neighbors, but can plant it outside where it will provide carbon sequestration services for many Christmases to come.
Pablo Päster, MBA
Sustainability Engineer

10 responses

  1. Hey, I like Option C – great idea. Buy a live tree, then go and plant it somewhere after Christmas. A good (and environmentally educational) father-and-son/daughter thing to do during the potentially boring holiday season as well! Such a good idea, I wish I hadn’t already bought my plastic one…

  2. I’m a big fan of option C too…. I think it’s purely a cultural thing. If there’s a practical way to get people interested in the idea of decorating live trees then it’s a winner of an idea.
    Still, even a real tree is not really putting more carbon in the atmosphere – at worst it’s a carbon nutral activity, even if you burn it. A tree farm is not an old growth forest.
    There are few things worst than fake plants: never, never, never.

    • Hello all,
    • I would say that getting the Christmas tree is not as much an ethical dilemma as it is a matter of good taste and perfect symmetry.
    • The reason why people don’t usually buy “fake” trees, they are real trees all right, only made by humans and not by mother earth, so the reason why people still buy little green natural trees is because they can find them easier and sometimes cheaper than the plastic trees.
    • And people don’t usually buy plastic trees instead of natural trees because “green” people were not able to persuade the big guys to put a stop once and for all to this stupid habit of offering anual live sacrifices to honor Christmas by nailing another kid again, a green little kid, instead of letting him/her grow as it is supposed to, and die as it is supposed to of old age.
    • I suggest you ask the Pope whether Christ was supposed to die on the cross or live and die of old age according to what God had in mind for his kid. And again ask the father and mother of a little tree whether they planned to offer him as sacrifice or rather wished that their green kid live a long happy non-human sort of life.
    • So better, for the next year, Christmas of 2007, let’s try to make little plastic trees be more available and easier to buy than the green natural trees, and again let’s use television and the Internet in a more efficient manner, and make people choose plastic trees more often than green natural kids for their anual sacrifice to honor Lord’s birthday.
    • And if you do choose plastic trees, real good friends, and cute, and clean, and made with good taste, and out of love and respect for mother nature and for Our Lord too, they are more or less related, mother earth and Our Lord, so if you do choose them let me suggest you an excellent link where you can learn a few tips for saving energy this holiday season:
    • Thanks for the interesting breakdown, Pablo.
      As the owner of a pre-lighted fake Christmas tree, three seasons now, I’d like to make some minor family-sustainable points:
      1. You rightly mentioned the high flammability of “live” trees. As a first-hand witness to the awesome combustibility of these six-to-twelve foot potential infernos, I can say without reservation that our fake tree is the best $100 (post-holiday sale price) I’ve ever spent on otherwise mostly unnecessary Christmas paraphernalia. I truly sleep better knowing my family won’t burn to death waiting for Santa to arrive . . . no small consideration for anyone who has small children (or simply wishes not to become a charred vestige of one’s former self). And, yes, excepting the festive bouquet, I really can’t tell the aesthetic difference between our fake tree and a live one from five feet away.
      2. Allergies. I’ve got them, and how. I suspect my children may as well, albeit to a lesser degree. Real trees harbor dust, mites, molds, pollen, spores and whatever else has capacity to float on the wind. Then we prop them in our homes, where they aggravate allergies while simultaneously lowering our physiological ability to fend off even the slightest cold virus that saunters by. Before you can say “rhinovirus”, everyone’s feverish, coughing, and charging through the Kleenex box like a five-year-old through a pile of kaleidoscopic Christmas gifts. Since my fake tree arrived, I’ve not experienced these same annoying inconveniences.
      3. Let the trees live. I must agree with this simple point earlier voiced in Luci B’s rather religio-earthy contribution. Though I devote little enthusiasm for the holiday’s Christian connotations, and less for the misappropriation and the ancient Winter Solstice celebrations, I maintain the live and let live philosophy as it pertains to all creatures. It’s an easy lesson, but an important one to pass on. End of story.
      Kind regards, and keep up the cause Pablo (et al.),

    • And, in an urban environment, finding a place to plant the live tree once the holiday is over can be a nuisance! Parks prohibit planting, many people don’t have a backyard that can accommodate the tree, and others may not be able to take public transport to a place that will let the green one live happily ever after.

    • J. Metcalf,
      I would certainly not advocate that anyone get rid of their fake Christmas tree. That would be one of the most frequently committed sustainability fallacies. It’s like people that pull out perfectly good wood floors to put in bamboo floors “because it’s more sustainable.” If you do feel eco-guilt surrounding your tree just call up DriveNeutral to offset the carbon emissions from creating and operating your tree…

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