Natural vs. artificial Christmas trees

Which option is better for the environment? Today we bring you some facts that might help you decide

Natural vs. artificial Christmas tree: Which one is better?
According to the Mexican Biodiversity Journal, there were 94 coniferous species (cypresses, fir trees, yews, pines, etc) registered in 2014 - Photo: Jair Cabrera/EL UNIVERSAL
English 15/12/2018 19:53 Newsroom Mexico City Carmina de la Luz Ramírez Actualizada 10:22
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Can a natural Christmas tree be more ecologic than one made of plastic? Is it better to buy local or imported trees? Your decision could have a positive impact on the environment.

According to the National Forest Commission (CONAFOR), places dedicated to the specific harvest of Christmas trees have existed in Mexico since the 1960s, though it wasn’t until 2001 that said economic activity became regulated by public policies oriented by scientific research.

Mexico is a privileged country in terms of biodiversity. According to the Mexican Biodiversity Journal, there were 94 coniferous species (cypresses, fir trees, yews, pines, etc) registered in 2014. This is why the purchase of pine trees for Christmas is a seemingly profitable alternative in Mexico.

Between 2013 and 2016, CONAFOR invested MXN$7.8 million in this sector. At the end of said period, the commission reported an economic spill of MXN$360 million. Naturally, forest authorities are in favor of commercial Christmas tree plantations, though producers must abide by a series of strict rules for sustainability.

The continuing demand for natural Christmas trees allows for the preservation of certain green areas that would otherwise be displaced by urban sprawl.

On the other hand, some people may argue that buying an artificial tree is the most environment-friendly alternative, and under certain conditions, they would be right.

In the United States, both postures are represented by commercial organizations such as the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), in favor of synthetic trees, and the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), which promotes the consumption of natural treas. Each year, both organizations fund scientific studies aiming to prove the superiority of one product over the other.

For example, ACTA claims that natural trees represent a significant risk of fire in American homes, while artificial products introduce chemical innovations such as flame retardants, making them safer for purchase. For their part, the NCTA argues that synthetic trees are mostly made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a type of plastic that requires the use of mercury during production, a toxic and highly polluting substance. Nowadays, however, there are some artificial trees made of polyethylene, which is a far less dangerous polymer.

From a neutral standpoint, the British organization Carbon Trust, a company that offers solutions for a more sustainable economy, has analyzed the carbon footprint of both natural and artificial Christmas trees. They found that an artificial Christmas tree leaves a carbon footprint of 40 kilograms of carbon dioxide, whereas natural Christmas trees leave a carbon footprint of barely 3.5 kg.

In other words, a consumer would have to use his or her artificial tree for at least 10 years so that it may compete with the natural tree in terms of ecology. What if a person were to buy natural Christmas trees 15 years in a row? Would that mean that the person cares less for the environment than a person who has used their artificial Christmas tree for 20 years?

The answer to this question is relative, since in both cases the carbon footprint may vary depending on the origin of the product at hand and its final destination. For example, an imported natural tree has a larger carbon footprint due to the fuel used for its transport; if the tree is disposed of in a dumpster, its decomposition outdoors could elevate its carbon footprint to 16 kilograms.

Natural Christmas trees purchased from local forest plantations are usually the friendliest alternative. “Commercial Christmas tree plantations provide many ecosystem benefits, such as carbon capture, water catching, and soil retention. They also serve as climate regulators and provide a habitat for wildlife,” claimed Carlos Mallén Rivera, an academic from the National Institute of Forest, Agricultural, and Livestock Research (INIFAP). The expert added that tree plantations were also highly efficient, since one hectare of soil can yield up to 4,000 trees. Furthermore, their cultivation follows a cyclical behavior. Once a tree is cut for sale, its stump is able to grow back into a new full-sized tree in 5 to 8 years time.

However, this sector is faced with illegal logging, which is why customers in the country are advised to purchase trees that have been authorized for sale by the PROFEPA.


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