It’s almost that jolly time of the year again for families to decorate a Christmas tree together and exchange gifts under that tree. Being the centerpiece of an annual tradition which is observed in 94 million households in the USA alone , the Christmas tree presents an environmental choice for each family: artificial or fake.
An artificial Christmas tree has a lower environmental impact than a real Christmas tree only if used from 9 to 20 years. This time window depends mainly on the distance between the buyer and the retailer, with transportation being the biggest factor in a real tree’s carbon footprint.
If you are an eco-conscious shopper who is looking for a more sustainable way to pick your holiday decorations, we are here to discuss the green impacts, the pros, and the cons of the two types of Christmas trees.
In keeping the Earth green, you would typically be told that natural products are better than their artificial counterparts. After all, plastic wastes sit in a landfill for millions of years. However, in choosing between a fake Christmas tree and a real Christmas tree, the environmentally superior decision is not (pun intended) clear-cut.
Real Christmas trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air while they grow in farms, so they are better for the environment than artificial Christmas trees in that regard. However, a real tree dies within weeks after cutting it down, so you would need to drive your car and use fuel every Christmas to get a new tree.
Artificial Christmas trees can save you some money, gas, and time if you reuse them for several Decembers. Still, fake trees are made with non-biodegradable plastic and imported all the way from China. All that packaging and transportation leaves a carbon footprint which is twice higher than real Christmas trees!
After conducting extensive research and reviewing two principal studies on the life cycle of Christmas Trees from the USA and from Canada, we found that the two types of trees have comparable impacts on the environment under certain circumstances.
These are the two best scenarios in terms of sustainability:
1) An artificial Christmas tree has the least environmental impact if used for 9-20 years.
2) A real Christmas tree is generally the better ecological choice, but only if the drive between consumer and retailer is shorter than 16 km (10 mi) each year.
Of course, a third choice which may not be common but leaves the least amount of carbon footprint is for you to buy a potted, living Christmas tree and re-decorate it as it grows through each holiday season!
Being a billion-dollar industry, there is a strong debate between artificial Christmas tree manufacturers and real Christmas tree farmers. With compelling arguments from both sides, we have looked at the 3 main factors of how a Christmas tree affects the environment: 1) Production, 2) Transportation, and 3) Disposal.
Production of a Real vs. an Artificial Christmas Tree
To understand how sustainable your Christmas tree is, it is important to know where it came from.
It is a common misconception that cutting down Pine and Fir trees for Christmas results in deforestation. In reality, there is an industry of 15,000 farms in the US growing 350 million trees which otherwise wouldn’t be planted if not for the popular demand for Christmas trees each year .
To maintain their supplies, farmers plant 1-3 seedlings for every tree that they cut down. While growing, the trees provide a natural habitat to wildlife, and they absorb the carbon dioxide in exchange for oxygen.
98% of Christmas trees are grown on farms, while only 2% are harvested from the wild. The USDA Forest Service encourages people to secure a permit and take part in cutting down Christmas trees for regulation of potential wildfires .
The only downside in Christmas tree farming is the necessity to use pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers over wide areas of land . Unfortunately, these chemicals can have harmful run-offs on nearby water supplies.
Modern artificial Christmas trees are typically made using polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a petroleum-based, non-biodegradable type of plastic which has minimal traces of carcinogens, dioxins, and lead by-products .
Lead has been linked to liver, kidney, and reproductive health problems .
Within the lifespan of a plastic tree, 70% of its total greenhouse gasses pollution happens during the manufacturing stage.
Transportation of a Real vs. an Artificial Christmas Tree
Another important factor to consider is the overall carbon footprint that occurs while the tree is being moved from the factory or from the farm into the home of a family.
A real Christmas tree offers a tradition of joy and bonding opportunity for families. You may have fond memories of driving down into a local nursery to pick your own tree, cut it down, haul it up a truck or on the roof of your car, and share a cup of hot eggnog with your family on the way home.
The carbon footprint of driving your car back and forth to a farm piles up for each year that you choose to buy a real Christmas tree. You can reduce your impact on the environment by choosing the nearest nurseries in your area, making sure that the trip distance is shorter than 16 km (10 mi).
It is also worth noting that a significant chunk of the carbon emissions from real Christmas trees come from plantation management, harvesting, and shipping to retailers. Synthetic ropes are used to secure the trees and sometimes, helicopters are used to lift logs.
Eighty percent of artificial Christmas trees worldwide are manufactured in China . The import process significantly raises the carbon footprint of these trees. The final products also have to be packaged with plastic materials and distributed via trucks into retail stores.
Life Span and Disposal of a Real vs. an Artificial Christmas Tree
Ultimately, what will determine the environmental impact of your Christmas tree is how long you intend to use it and how you plan to dispose of it afterwards.
A tree that has been cut down and thrown into the landfill will produce a carbon footprint of 16 kg CO2, releasing hazardous methane gas as it decomposes . Fortunately, instead of being thrown away, 93% of living Christmas trees are recycled in the US after the holiday season .
There are 4,000 recycling programs in the US. You can have your tree collected by the Fire Department or the trash company. The trees will be turned into mulch for composting or into chippings for landscaping. Some organizations also sink trees into lakes to serve as habitat for the fish.
Each artificial Christmas tree produces a carbon footprint of 40 kg CO2, which is more than double of a real Christmas tree . To offset the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, you would need to reuse your artificial tree for at least 9 years.
You can save money, gas, time, and energy by reusing your artificial tree each Christmas for several years. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that when you finally throw away the plastic tree, it would take centuries for its components to decompose.
In a peer-reviewed, life cycle analysis of Christmas trees in the USA, the research shows that there is an environmental break-even between the two types of trees.
Overall, the environmental impacts of both artificial Christmas trees and real Christmas trees constitute a negligible 0.1% of a single person’s annual carbon footprint.
Another comparative life cycle assessment of Christmas trees in Canada recommends that carpooling or biking to work only three weeks in a year would offset the carbon emissions from both types of Christmas trees.
Ultimately, the burden lies on consumers to make responsible choices in shopping for Christmas trees. You can reuse your artificial tree for the longest time possible. You can minimize your car travel when buying trees. You can choose potted, living trees over freshly-cut ones. You can always try to recycle the tree parts once you are done decorating them!
After looking at the environmental impacts of the two types of trees, you may also consider choosing your Christmas tree based on other factors such as practicality and accessibility.
Here’s why shoppers would buy a fake tree for the holidays:
- Low-maintenance: A fake Christmas tree requires no watering and upkeep.
- Cost-effective: Artificial Christmas trees are usually sold together with lights and ornaments, and can be reused for multiple years.
- Portable: When buying from the store, all the pieces easily fit in a box. You won’t need to tie your tree on the roof of your car on the way home.
- Accessible: Artificial Christmas trees are widely available in online stores and retail shops nearby.
Here’s why shoppers would avoid a fake tree for the holidays:
- Storage: You would need to fit all the pieces back into the box after the holidays, and the bent branches might not look as perky when you use the tree next time.
- Battery life: Pre-lit trees might start to have faulty LED lights after some years, and replacing the decorations without replacing the tree itself would be a hassle.
Here’s why shoppers would buy a real tree for the holidays:
- Smell: The smell of Pine or Fir trees lifts the spirit of Christmas for families who are used to the tradition.
- Outdoors: Real trees can be displayed outdoors, and can even be replanted after the festivities if the root ball is intact.
- Economy: Purchasing trees in local nurseries brings in money for the growers in the neighborhood. Tree-cutting can also be an opportunity for community camaraderie during fund-raising initiatives for the holidays.
Here’s why shoppers would avoid a real tree for the holidays:
- Allergies: Some people are allergic to the smell of Pine and Fir trees.
- Pets: The sap from Christmas trees could be poisonous for some dogs, cats, and other pets.
- Bugs: A real tree could bring in spiders, bugs, and microorganisms from the outdoors into the house.
- Upkeep: Living trees require frequent watering. They also take a lot of effort to transport, and the pine needles usually end up scattered in the house.
- Fire Hazard: A real tree is extremely flammable when not watered correctly. The spark of a plug or the heat of the decorative lights can set a dry Christmas tree on fire within seconds!
No matter which type of Christmas tree you choose, you can have a more eco-friendly celebration by following these tips:
- Consider buying a potted, live tree. Some nurseries sell small-sized Christmas trees which are grown in containers. You can take one home, decorate it, and watch it grow in the coming years! They are especially easy to care for in cold climates.
- Do not burn your tree! After the holidays, send your real trees to the local compost organization to be used as mulch. If you want to discard your old plastic tree, consider donating it first.
- Reuse and recycle! Real Christmas trees can be replanted if the root ball is intact, or the chipped tree can be used in landscapes, pathways and playgrounds. The parts of artificial trees can be repurposed into tiny wreaths or garden stands.
- Minimize car travel. In buying a tree, find the closest possible shops or consider carpooling with your relatives and friends.
- Use recyclable ornaments. Look up ideas on the internet for DIY projects. Try other fun, creative ways to put a twist to your traditional Christmas decorations.
- Production, transportation, and disposal are the 3 key factors in determining the sustainability of Christmas trees.
- There is an environmental break-even point between artificial Christmas trees and real Christmas trees, depending greatly on the consumer’s utilization.
- To minimize the environmental impacts of an artificial Christmas tree, it should be used for 9-20 years.
- A real Christmas tree is an overall better environmental choice, but only if the yearly drive to get one is shorter than 16 km (10 mi).
- The acquisition and usage of a Christmas tree has a negligible carbon footprint compared to the other daily activities of an average American.
- Each consumer can make the holidays merry by choosing eco-friendly ways to celebrate Christmas!