Christmas trees are one of the first holiday decorations to go up in a home. It makes your space feel cozy and creates excitement for the holiday season ahead. Over the past couple decades there has been much debate over which kind of Christmas tree is better for the environment, a natural tree or an artificial one. Both tree types have their positive and negative environmental impacts, and by discussing them here, I hope it leads you to make a more informed decision about which is right for you.
Since I have been writing about zero waste living, around the holidays I am always asked which is better, real or artificial trees. Well, the answer is not as simple as one or the other, and it all depends on many variables about each tree and their lifespan.
So, why should you seriously consider what tree is best?
Being aware of your environmental impact is important, and there is never a better time to really start considering the impacts of your individual actions. Like it or not, the world is also in a climate crisis, and every thoughtful positive action helps to reduce our carbon footprint contributing to global emissions. When you make a decision about what tree to use, this decision is an individual action that affects the environment in one way or another. The goal, to choose the option that makes the smallest footprint overall.
When it comes to thinking about environmental impact, real trees have a huge advantage. They are of course natural. Trees purchased from tree lots are grown in tree farms mostly from eastern Canada, and they are grown specifically for the holiday season. It takes each tree at least eight or more years to become large enough to be a Christmas tree. Typically, these farm grown trees spend about 4 years in a nursery, grow in the field for up to 11 years, and then are cut to be sold as a Christmas tree. This is the average lifespan of an average size tree measuring at about seven feet tall.
While each tree grows it also has a positive environmental impact, given that during the years it is growing it takes in carbon dioxide and emits oxygen. Tree farms, like any other type of farm (cattle, corn, produce) also take up a lot of land for growing, which can at first be a hindrance to the ecosystem around it. But over time, these growing trees provide many benefits to an ecosystem over other types of farming. Besides releasing oxygen, these trees filter stormwater runoff, provide animal habitats, and they help to stabilize the soil.
Disposing of a Real Tree & Driving to Get One
How a tree is disposed of and how it is transported both seriously affect a real tree’s overall impact on the earth. This part is interesting because this is not up to the tree. Disposing and driving are two of the things us humans do that would potentially make or break whether a natural tree as a Christmas tree stays the more earth friendly option. In fact, a 6 – 7 foot tall natural tree has a CO2 impact of 3.1 kg, equivalent to 14 km of driving in a car. The main source of negative impact comes from the transportation of the tree from farm to tree lot to home.
When it comes to disposing a Christmas tree after the holiday season, one of the best ways is to have it picked up by a municipal service that will then shred the trees and turn them into reusable materials for parks and gardens. If disposed like this, natural trees end up having a positive overall environmental impact.
Now unfortunately not all trees are disposed of in this way. A second good option would be to compost the tree and have it turned into soil with the rest of municipal compost, or turn it into firewood in your own backyard. What often happens though is that real trees are disposed of improperly and get sent to the landfill, where they would not decompose and would instead result in the production of methane gas, one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases. If this is where a real Christmas tree ends up, its CO2 impact jumps from a measly 3.1 kg to 16.0 kg per year, overtime making it have a more negative impact than an artificial tree used for just 3 years.
One last great way to give a natural Christmas tree a second home when disposing it, is to donate the undecorated tree to a wildlife centre. There, they will use the tree in animal enclosures to mimic their natural habitats, using them as perching branches, scratching posts, and other forms of enrichment. For this option, it’s a great idea to look outside of a city center, as many wildlife centers take donations but often those outside city limits do not receive as many.
Over all, keeping climate change and resource use in mind, a natural tree has very few negative impacts if it is disposed of properly and purchased close to home.
Artificial trees on the other hand start out at a bit of a disadvantage, no matter how many years they are reused, they are still manufactured out of synthetic materials. Fake trees are made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), one of the world’s most widely used and non-recyclable plastics, for the tree’s needles and steel for the branches and brackets. It also typically comes in a cardboard box, which is the only recyclable part about a fake tree, as the tree itself has so many mixed plastics, it cannot be separated in recycling.
An average size artificial tree of 6 – 7 feet in height, has a carbon footprint 10 times that of a natural tree that turns to firewood, totalling at about 48 kg of CO2 total. Differing from a real tree, most of its environmental impact comes from the production side and travelling overseas, as most artificial trees are manufactured in China.
You’re probably thinking, not a great start. But artificial trees do have some positives. They can continually be reused, and in doing so, each year the carbon footprint of an artificial tree is lowered. The problem with this method is that we typically use them a few years and then upgrade to a newer one. The average length of time artificial trees are kept in North America is only 6 years. In terms of climate and resources, for an artificial tree to have a more positive impact than using a real tree every year, the artificial tree would have to be kept for upwards of 10 years and preferably 20.
Most artificial products do end up in the landfill, and are destined for landfill as soon as they are created. One great alternative that does make the artificial Christmas tree option more positive, is buying used. This extends the life of an artificial tree and diverts it from being in a landfill sooner than it needs too. Buying used is also a great option if you are thinking about getting a second tree for another space in your home. There are already millions of artificial trees in circulation, the less we buy new, the less demand there will be for manufacturing these new trees.
Buying a Tree?
Think about the overall impact each tree will have on the Earth over many years. Ask yourself, are you willing to make a 10-20 year investment on an artificial tree to make sure the impact turns positive? Are you going to be buying a used fake tree? If the answer is no, then an artificial tree may not be the way to go.
Instead, think about purchasing a locally grown organic tree, cutting one yourself at a tree farm or permitted cutting area, or better yet, choosing a plantable tree with the roots still intact. Considering most of a real tree’s negative environmental impact comes from traveling to and from the tree farm as well as shipping the tree across the country, the closer to home you can go, the better! An organically grown tree will also use fewer synthetic pesticides that could potentially harm the environment around the tree farms. You can also find smaller trees with roots attached that can be planted after the weather warms in the spring. Make sure to plant it in an area it is native to (no invasive species here)! One last alternative to a regular sized tree is using cuttings, often easily found at tree lots from tree trimming or as close as your backyard. Branch cuttings can be used to make arrangements in large water jars, and can still be decorated with ornaments. This option works great for small apartments, entrance ways, or even outdoors, making any space look a little more festive!
Buying a used artificial tree is still a great Christmas tree option to consider as well. If you are concerned with finding the best low waste solution, a locally grown potted tree, organically grown tree, or a reused artificial tree are three of your best options. Of course, if you already have a tree at home, the best option is to keep the one you have, and make sure it is used by another home after yours. The holiday season is one of the most wasteful times of the year, so each Earth conscious choice we can make, makes this holiday season a little easier on the Earth.