Which Christmas tree option is better for the climate?

By | December 19, 2023

It’s that time of year when people start looking for the best Christmas sales and wrapping gifts. But what is the best type of tree to put them under?

While some enjoy the smell of a real tree and the fun of picking one out at a local farm, others prefer the simplicity of artificial trees that they can reuse for Christmases to come.

But consumers are becoming increasingly climate conscious, and considering which tree has the lowest impact on our rapidly warming planet has become an essential part of the holiday decision. Plus, choosing a planet-friendly tree will likely put you on Santa’s good list.

So, which type of tree has the lowest carbon footprint: a natural tree or a store-bought plastic tree? It’s complicated, experts say.

“It’s definitely a lot more nuanced and complex than you think,” Andy Finton, director of landscape conservation and forest ecologist for the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, told CNN.

We’ve made a list (and checked it twice) of the things you need to know before choosing between real and artificial.

The case for artificial trees

Christmas trees for sale at a store in Chicago, Illinois, in November 2020. - Christopher Dilts/Bloomber/Getty Images

Christmas trees for sale at a store in Chicago, Illinois, in November 2020. – Christopher Dilts/Bloomber/Getty Images

It’s easy to imagine that reusing an artificial tree year after year is the more sustainable option. But Finton says that if an artificial tree is used for six years – the average time people tend to keep it – “the carbon costs are definitely greater” than for a natural tree.

“If the artificial trees are used for a longer lifespan, that balance changes,” Finton told CNN. “And I read that it would take twenty years before the carbon balance would be approximately equal.”

That’s because artificial trees are typically made of polyvinyl chloride plastic, or PVC. Plastic is petroleum-based and made in petrochemical plants that cause pollution. Studies have also linked PVC plastic to cancer and other public health and environmental risks.

Then there is the transportation aspect. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, most artificial Christmas trees are imported into the U.S. from China, which means the products are transported across the Pacific Ocean by fossil fuel-powered ships and then moved by heavy-duty trucks before finally hitting distributor shelves end up. or at the consumer’s door.

The American Christmas Tree Association, a nonprofit organization representing manufacturers of artificial trees, commissioned WAP Sustainability Consulting to conduct a study in 2018 that found that the environmental impact of an artificial tree is better than that of a real tree if you consider the fake tree used for at least five years.

“Artificial trees were looked at [in the study] for factors such as manufacturing and overseas transportation,” Jami Warner, executive director of ACTA, told CNN. “The planting, fertilizing and watering of real trees, which have an estimated field cultivation period of seven to eight years, has been taken into account.”

What are the benefits of real trees?

Field crews load cut and wrapped Christmas trees into trucks at Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Salem, Oregon in 2020.  Noble Mountain is one of the largest Christmas tree farms in the world, harvesting approximately 500,000 trees per season.  -Nathan Howard/Getty ImagesField crews load cut and wrapped Christmas trees into trucks at Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Salem, Oregon in 2020.  Noble Mountain is one of the largest Christmas tree farms in the world, harvesting approximately 500,000 trees per season.  -Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Field crews load cut and wrapped Christmas trees into trucks at Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Salem, Oregon in 2020. Noble Mountain is one of the largest Christmas tree farms in the world, harvesting approximately 500,000 trees per season. -Nathan Howard/Getty Images

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, it takes an average of seven years for a Christmas tree to fully grow. And as it grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. Protecting forests and planting trees can help prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis by removing planet-warming gas from the atmosphere.

When trees are cut down or burned, they can release the carbon they have stored back into the atmosphere. But Doug Hundley, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, which advocates for real trees, says cutting down Christmas trees on a farm is balanced if farmers immediately plant more seedlings to replace them.

“When we harvest or cut down the trees, we plant them back very quickly,” Hundley says.

If the idea of ​​trekking through a forest in search of the perfect tree is intriguing, you can purchase a permit from the US Forest Service, which encourages people to cut down their own tree instead of purchasing an artificial tree. According to Recreation.gov, cutting down thin trees in dense areas can improve forest health.

But Finton doesn’t recommend pulling a Clark Griswold and chopping down a huge tree to drag home – especially if it’s in an area you’re not allowed to enter. He recommends purchasing a tree from a local farm instead.

“For me, the benefit of going to a Christmas tree farm, which is different than cutting down a tree in the forest, is that it concentrates the impact of tree removal in one location,” he said. “And it puts the onus on the farmers to regenerate those trees.”

There is also an economic benefit to going natural, as most of the trees people end up with are grown on nearby farms. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, approximately 15,000 farms grow Christmas trees in the U.S. alone, employing more than 100,000 people in the industry full or part time.

“What we’re doing by buying a natural Christmas tree is supporting local economies, local communities and local farmers, and to me that’s an important part of conservation,” Finton said. “When a tree grower can derive economic benefits from his land, he is less likely to sell it for development and less likely to convert it to other uses.”

Removal is important

City workers grind up Christmas trees from recent holidays in a wood chipper at a community park in Warminster, PA, in February 2019. - Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty ImagesCity workers grind up Christmas trees from recent holidays in a wood chipper at a community park in Warminster, PA, in February 2019. - Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images

City workers grind up Christmas trees from recent holidays in a wood chipper at a community park in Warminster, PA, in February 2019. – Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Trees pile up on curbs after the holidays are over, and their final destination in many locations is landfills, where they contribute to emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas about 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

“Real Christmas trees going into landfills is strongly discouraged,” Hundley said, adding that there should be “separate areas for yard waste where Christmas trees can go.”

But some towns and cities reuse the trees for the benefit of the climate and the environment. In New York City, trees left at the curb for a certain period of time are collected for recycling or composting. The city sanitation department is also hosting an initiative called MulchFest, where residents can have their trees shredded for mulch and used to nourish other trees in the city.

“When the tree is done with the homeowner’s use, it is very easy and common in America to have the tree shredded into mulch – and the stored carbon is put back into the ground,” Hundley added.

Finton also says former Christmas trees can be reused for habitat restoration; they can help control erosion if placed along streams and riverbanks, and can even help underwater habitats thrive if placed in rivers and lakes.

The end of life of an artificial tree is very different. They end up in landfills – where they can take hundreds of years to break down – or in incinerators, where dangerous chemicals are released.

it comes down to

Adobe StockAdobe Stock

Adobe Stock

When we weigh the complicated pros and cons of climate, real Christmas trees have the edge. But if you choose to artificially cover your halls, buy a tree that you will love and that you can reuse for many years.

Either way, Finton said, people should feel good about their decision and find other ways to tackle the climate crisis.

“It’s a debate, but once you’ve made a decision you should feel good about your decision because there are so many other things we can do in our lives that will have an even bigger impact on the climate – like driving less or advocate for policies that expand renewable energy,” Finton said. “Enjoy the holidays and focus on other aspects of your life to reduce the effects of climate change.”

A version of this story was originally published in November 2021.

For more CNN news and newsletters, create an account at CNN.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *