But with more and more consumers increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of their purchases, one might wonder which type of Christmas tree is more planet-friendly. Here’s what you need to know when it comes to whether real or artificial trees are better for the environment.
The argument for real trees
While you might fear that cutting down tens of millions of trees each year is an environmental nightmare, a real Christmas tree may be more sustainable than an artificial one, says Bill Ulfelder, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in New York.
“There shouldn’t be any remorse, no guilt, like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a cut down tree.’ It’s quite the opposite,” says Ulfelder, who holds a master’s degree in forestry. “Trees are a renewable resource. When they are cut, they are harvested in such a way that they can be replanted, so it’s a great renewable resource that offers many environmental, conservation and natural benefits.”
For one thing, living trees absorb carbon dioxide — a major contributor to global warming — from the air and release oxygen. It can take at least seven years to grow a Christmas tree to its typical height of six to seven feet, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), a trade group that in part represents growers and sellers of real trees. While estimates can vary significantly, one study suggests growing Christmas trees can sequester nearly a ton of carbon dioxide per acre, according to the Sightline Institute. What happens to that carbon depends on how these trees are treated once they’re cut down and discarded.
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As these trees grow, they not only provide clean air but can also serve as a habitat for wildlife, help improve water quality and slow erosion, and preserve green spaces. Christmas trees are often grown on slopes that would be unsuitable for growing other types of crops, and for every tree harvested, one to three seedlings are planted the following spring, according to the NCTA.
Plus, real trees can be reused in ways that continue to benefit the environment even after they’re no longer alive. Cities like New York and DC have municipal programs that harvest dead Christmas trees and turn them into mulch. The trees can also be used to prevent dune erosion or sink into ponds and lakes to create natural habitats for freshwater wildlife, Ulfelder says.
“There is life for [real] Christmas trees after Christmas,” he says.
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But Ulfelder and other experts acknowledge that there is an environmental cost to growing and distributing real trees. Growing trees requires water and, in many cases, fertilizers and pesticides. Also, harvesting trees and shipping them from farms to stores or lots can produce emissions.
However, real trees may be the preferred choice over artificial ones when it comes to overall sustainability, which also takes into account economic and social impacts, says Bert Cregg, a professor of horticulture and forestry at Michigan State University. “That’s where I think real trees are head and shoulders above” artificial trees, says Cregg.
There are nearly 15,000 Christmas tree farms in the United States, the vast majority of which are family-owned operations, and the industry provides full- or part-time jobs to more than 100,000 people, according to the NCTA.
“Like any other agriculture, are you going to support local farmers or are you supporting a major producer somewhere else?” Cregg says.
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Most of the artificial trees sold in the United States are made in China, according to the NCTA, citing data from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The trees are typically loaded onto fossil fuel-burning cargo ships bound for the United States, where they are distributed to dealers nationwide. But experts say the emissions associated with transporting artificial trees are less significant than those produced during their production.
Artificial trees are often made from plastic, a petroleum-based material and steel. Many trees use polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which has been linked to health and environmental risks. Trees can also be made of polyethylene, another type of plastic, says Mac Harman, founder and CEO of Balsam Hill, a leading retailer of artificial Christmas trees and holiday decorations in the United States.
While not much about artificial trees initially sounds Earth-friendly, in some cases they can be the more environmentally friendly choice, according to the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), a non-profit industry group representing manufacturers of artificial trees. .
A 2018 study analyzed real and artificial Christmas trees across several environmental metrics, including global warming potential, primary energy demand and water consumption, among others, and found that artificial trees can have less environmental impact if they are reused for at least five years than buying a new real tree every year.
“The impact of both types of trees varies based on how far consumers travel to get their tree, how they dispose of their tree (for live trees, landfill, incineration, or compost), and how long consumers use their trees”, according to a summary of the ACTA study, which released the assessment conducted by WAP Sustainability Consulting.
But another in-depth study published in 2009 concluded that artificial trees would only become better than natural ones if they were used for 20 years.
According to Harman, an ACTA-funded Nielsen survey found that nearly 50 percent of artificial tree owners reported that they planned to use their trees for 10 or more seasons.
He adds that artificial trees are also often given as gifts or gifts, which can extend their lifespan. The flip side, though, is that once these trees are of no use to anyone, “at this point they mostly end up in landfills,” she says.
More plastic eventually ends up in landfills should concern consumers, Ulfelder says.
“If you keep artificial trees long enough, the carbon footprint might be lower, but then you still have plastic and then there’s plastic that goes to landfill,” he says. “So that’s just one way of looking at the comparison, and I think we just have to look at all the nature benefits of natural trees.”
If you’re interested in a real tree, Ulfelder recommends trying to buy local whenever possible. Driving for a long time in a gas-guzzling car to get to a farm or a vendor can be a significant source of emissions. Purchasing your tree from a farm or lot in your area can also help support the local economy. Top Christmas tree-producing states include Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington, according to the NCTA.
Looking for an organically grown Christmas tree is one more step you can take to help the environment, Ulfelder says.
The US Forest Service also sells permits to people who want to go out into the wild and cut down their own tree. “For every tree that is found, cut and brought home as holiday gear, you also contribute to the overall health of the forest,” according to a government website that sells the permits.
Purchasing a live tree or one that can be replanted outdoors is another option. “The big trick is to make the tree live afterwards,” says Cregg.
If you have a live tree, it’s crucial you don’t keep it indoors for too long, especially if you’re in the northern areas of the country, or it could start to lose its ability to withstand cold temperatures, she says. He suggests leaving the tree for up to two weeks before moving it to an unheated garage or patio until spring. “Then, you can plant it just like your regular spring planting routine.”
It’s also important to take care of real trees, Cregg says. Trees need plenty of water and she recommends checking the tree stand daily to make sure the tree isn’t drying out.
And how you dispose of your real tree matters. “If people put the tree in a bonfire, all that carbon goes back into the atmosphere,” Cregg says.
If you plan to mulch your tree, be sure to remove all decorations, Ulfelder says. Leftover ornaments, lights, or bits of tinsel can give shredders a headache.
For those who prefer artificial trees, try to keep them in use and out of landfills for as long as possible.
And while real and artificial trees may have different impacts, experts say it’s important to consider this vacation decision in the context of other personal choices that may contribute to climate change.
“At the end of the day, assuming an artificial tree is used for at least five years, neither tree has a significant impact on the environment compared to other activities of daily living like driving a car,” says Harman.