Oh, Christmas Tree! The Economic and Environmental Impact of the Holiday Tradition




This holiday season 77% of American households will display a Christmas tree , with almost 18% being natural, according to a survey from the American Christmas Tree Association. Approximately 25-30 million natural Christmas trees are sold each year in the United States.

Natural trees are grown in all fifty states, establishing a solid economy that employs over 100,000 people. The total acreage of Christmas tree farms in the United States is about 350,000 acres, much of it preserving green space and supporting turkey, quail, songbirds, rabbits, and deer. Christmas trees affect the air we breathe as well. A single acre of Christmas trees provides the daily oxygen requirement for eighteen people!

Photo: Maria Shanina

Photo: Maria Shanina

Regional history and market

In 1971, a non-profit called the Tennessee Christmas Tree Growers Association (TCTGA) was organized. Working alongside the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, they helped improve seed stock quality for the growth of Tennessee Christmas trees. The association also assisted the University of Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station and the Tennessee Division of Forestry in the publication of a Christmas Tree Grower’s Manual in the early 1980s and recently helped to publish an updated version.

Trees commonly grown in this region include the Eastern White Pine, Leyland Cypress, Norway Spruce, and the Scotch Pine. According to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, 93,874 trees were harvested in Tennessee, 50,112 in Georgia, and 16,355 in Alabama. For every natural Christmas tree harvested, 1 to 3 seedlings are planted the following spring, making Christmas trees a renewable crop. This also affects the supply for future years, since the amount of seedlings planted is based on how many trees are harvested each year.

Even if you bought your tree from a local vendor, there’s a good chance it was grown elsewhere and shipped here. Due to the high demand for Fraser Firs, a durable and fragrant tree, local farms offer pre-cut Fraser Firs imported from North Carolina, the second largest producer of Christmas trees in the United States. Their climate is ideal for the Fraser fir, which accounts for over 99% of Christmas trees grown in North Carolina. Like most consumer goods, Christmas trees rely on truck transit. Diesel prices are up $0.27 compared to this time last year, affecting the overall prices of imported trees.

Infographic by  FreightWaves

Infographic by FreightWaves

Be festive and (environmentally) friendly

Artificial trees are a more popular choice, making up 82% of Christmas trees displayed. There are a variety of reasons why one might choose an artificial tree, like allergies or convenience for those who don’t have time in their schedule to pick out and set up a real tree. Tennessee is one of the top three spenders on artificial trees, and homes that display artificial trees are more likely to display more than one tree, increasing the environmental impact.

While the domestic production of live Christmas trees is strong in the United States,  80% of artificial trees sold worldwide are manufactured in China. Artificial trees are primarily composed of steel sheets, polyvinylchloride (PVC), and polypropylene (PP), which are non-biodegradable and can release toxins over time. To minimize environmental impact, plan on reusing your tree at least five times.

Another way to reduce your impact on the environment during the holiday season is to try LED lights, which have roughly one-sixth the impact of incandescent lights. In fact, the use of Christmas lights has more of an environmental impact than the tree itself.

Infographic by  Treetopia

Infographic by Treetopia

Remember to recycle your tree!

If you have an artificial tree, hopefully you’re planning on reusing it! The only option for disposal is the landfill.

As for natural trees, there are more than 4,000 Christmas tree recycling programs in the United States. If you recycle your tree in Chattanooga or Hamilton County, the Highway Department will give your tree new life by chipping it into mulch for walking trails, landscaping and landfill ground cover. Some people even leave their trees outside during the winter months to provide shelter for birds, bunnies, and other woodland critters looking for protection! They can also be recycled to be used as wind and water barriers at beaches and riverbeds to fight sand and soil erosion.

Click here for more information on how to recycle your Christmas tree.

If your community or counties recycles Christmas trees - let us know!

Zoe Marston c Rhett Bentley.JPG

Zoe Marston is a Communications Intern for Thrive Regional Partnership. After spending a year abroad studying film at Norwich University of the Arts, she has returned to Chattanooga to tell the stories of her beloved hometown. At Thrive, she hopes to learn everything she can about doing her part to ensure sustainability in the region, and use that knowledge to further enrich the story of the Chattanooga area.