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Setting up a Christmas tree? Here's which option is better for the environment

Nov 25, 2022 09:45AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: Sven Brandsma 

By Laura Durenberger-Grunow - Boreal Community Media - November 25, 2022

Which team are you on? Team real Christmas tree or team artificial? 

Most people have a clear preference based on how they were raised and their traditions. That being said, have you ever stopped to question which option is more eco-friendly?

Some people believe that artificial trees must be the more eco-friendly option because cutting down trees seems counterintuitive to what we’ve been taught. 

On the other hand, some people can’t imagine an artificial tree being more eco-friendly, because of how it’s made, what it’s made out of, and where they typically come from. 

So, which is it? The answer may surprise you.

Real Christmas Tree Lifecycle

Here’s a quick look at the typical, average, REAL Christmas tree lifecycle:

  • seeds are collected and planted in nurseries 

  • the seeds turn into seedlings, are grown and protected using pesticides (more on that in a bit) or using organic methods

  • once the seedlings are at least 12”, they’re transplanted onto tree farms (very, very similar to regular agricultural farms)

  • they spend 7-12 years growing on the tree farm until harvested (“tending” varies during lifecycle and depending on farm – some are treated like a typical farm crop – watered, fertilized, etc, while others leave it all to nature)

  • harvest includes often being cut down using chainsaws (for those that are shipped to big box stores), or hand cut using chainsaws or saws in smaller operations or pick-your-own

  • at large tree farms, helicopters are used to move the trees onto trucks to avoid damaging branches or getting dirty

  • trees are transported to be sold

  • trees are then transported to homes, businesses, or other displays

  • after Christmas, trees are either sent to the landfill, chipped/mulched, left outside, or composted

And the cycle repeats. 

How are artificial trees made?

Here is a look at the lifecycle of an artificial tree:

  • the “trunk” and branches of the tree are made – usually out of steel, and covered in a polyester powder spray; a material stronger than paint

  • the pieces are welded together to create a type of “tree skeleton”

  • tiny strips of PVC plastic are made to create the “needles” (more on PVC plastic in a bit)

  • factory machines put together all the pieces 

  • white latex paint is used to create the “faux snow” or “frosted” look 

  • the finished tree is then packaged and prepared for transportation

  • the vast majority of artificial trees are made in China, so transportation is usually lengthy

  • trees are then delivered to stores

  • once purchased, trees are transported to homes, businesses, and other display areas

  •  after the owner is finished with the tree, it goes to the landfill. None of the parts of the tree are able to be recycled

Pros and cons of real Christmas trees 

Here are some of the pros in favor of real Christmas trees and the environment:

  • Carbon: trees capture carbon which means that Christmas trees, even on farms, capture carbon as they grow. In fact, out of the 350-500 million growing on tree farms across the U.S., only 30 million trees are harvested for Christmas each year (source)

  • Habitat: trees provide habitat and food for wildlife

  • Soil: trees help to protect soil, and help prevent erosion. In fact, according to Bert Cregg, an expert in Christmas tree production and forestry at Michigan State University, many species used for Christmas trees grow best on rolling hills that are often unsuitable for other crops (source)

  • Economy: many tree farms are small, local operations. About 15,000 farms grow Christmas trees in the US alone, employing over 100,000 people either full or part-time in the industry, according to the National Christmas Tree Association

  • Reuse: after Christmas, a real tree can be upcycled (use boughs for decor, leave out for wildlife habitat, compost for soil)

  • Land: 63% of Christmas trees come from just six states: California, Florida, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas (source). Sizable Christmas tree farms help prevent land from being developed (source)

  • Species: While some farms use pesticides to deter insect damage, once-exotic European species that are known to be pest resistant are also often selected and grown. Two of those species are Nordmann and Turkish firs; they hold up against certain fungi and bugs. (source)

Here are some of the cons against real Christmas trees and the environment:

  • Landfill: many Christmas trees end up in the landfill, where they slowly decompose and release methane. In fact, a 6.5ft tall real tree could result in a carbon footprint of 16kg CO2 if it ends up in landfill because the tree decomposes and produces methane gas – which is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. (source)

  • Pesticides: like many other agricultural crops, many tree farms use pesticides, although how much varies by farm. Many use integrated pest management – which means they use pesticides and herbicides, but only when absolutely needed (source). However, one source claims that 270,000 pounds of pesticides are sprayed on Christmas trees in the main six growing states each year. Roundup (which contains chemicals that  the World Health Organization classifies as “probably carcinogenic to humans”)  is also used in some cases to help seedlings become established by removing competing species, and to keep walkways between tree rows free of weeds (source)

    Additionally, “Lynn Wunderlich, a farm advisor from the University of California Cooperative Extension in California’s central Sierras, says while there are many farms that grow Christmas trees in a more sustainable fashion, oftentimes consumers complain about the trees having sticky residue from aphids”, which increases the need for farmers to use pesticides (source).

  • Maintenance: real Christmas trees are messy – they lose needles, and often need consistent watering (or at least checking for water)

  • Pests: live trees can bring in mold and/or bugs

  • Fire: live trees can be a huge fire hazard. According to the United States Fire Administration, over 2,600 people are injured due to fires during the holiday season, costing over $930 million in damages. Additionally, tree-related fires have higher fatality rates than other types of house fires.

  • Water: Of the six main states that grow 63% of trees (see above), three are in areas experiencing regular drought. Christmas trees “use more water than a vineyard but less water than a tree fruit—and much less than almonds” (source)

  • Transportation: In Christmas tree production, fuel use is the largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions. A tractor or delivery truck releases 20 – 22 lbs (9 -10 kg) of carbon dioxide with every 1 gallon of gas or diesel used (source). Not to mention the fuel of the helicopters (if used)

  • Air: some sources mention that live trees can help improve air quality – similar to how houseplants do so

Pros and cons of fake/artificial Christmas trees 

Here are some of the pros in favor of artificial Christmas trees:

  • Allergy: artificial trees can provide a great alternative for those allergic to pine, or the mold that real Christmas trees can carry

  • Accessibility: it’s easier for some populations to store a smaller, artificial tree that they can put up each year vs. having to go out and bring one home

  • Reuse: once the life of the tree is complete, some parts may be reused can for decor (branches as boughs) or other projects.

  • Donate: if you need to pass along an artificial tree to someone else to use, assuming it’s in good condition, you can!

  • Mess: there is much less mess associated with artificial trees

  • Water: you don’t have to worry about keeping track of watering the tree – a little less mental clutter

  • Fire: the fire component is a pro and a con. A pro because artificial trees carry much less of a fire risk than live trees do

Here are some of the cons against artificial Christmas trees:

  • Use: artificial Christmas tree owners need to use the same tree for ideally 10-ish years in order for it to counteract the negative environmental impacts (the average person uses an artificial tree for six-years only source)

  • Materials: as mentioned above, artificial trees are often made with PVC plastic (petroleum based) – often called one of the most toxic types of plastic. According to the Carbon Trust organization,  about 66% of the emissions from manufacturing any type of plastic trees comes from the carbon-intensive oil used to make them, and around 25% of emissions come from the overall manufacturing process (source)

  • Recycling: because of the materials used in manufacturing, artificial trees cannot be recycled

  • Transportation: most artificial Christmas tree factories are based in China – meaning the trees have a huge transportation footprint. In the U.S., around 10 million artificial trees are purchased each season. Nearly 90 percent of them are shipped across the world from China, resulting in an increase of carbon emissions and resources. (source)

  • Storage: you do need to have a place to store the Christmas tree after Christmas is over

  • Fire: the fire component is a pro and a con. A con because artificial trees often have a fire-resistant coating applied to reduce that fire risk, which some people try to avoid

So, which is more eco-friendly?

The clear answer seems to be that real Christmas trees are better for the environment than artificial trees. But it’s not that clear-cut. 

For example, when it comes to living trees, a report from environmental consultant group Ellipos suggests that if you have to travel more than 10 miles to get your tree you might be better off with an artificial one you can purchase closer to home (source). 

Additionally, according to The Carbon Trust, an artificial tree just 6.5 feet (2 meters) in height creates around 88 lbs (40 kg) CO2e–that’s over twice the amount of a real Christmas tree, even accounting for methane production if it ends up in a landfill  (source). 

The most sustainable option would be a real Christmas tree, purchased from a local tree farm (closer to your house the better) that is FSC Certified and practices organic agricultural methods. This assumes that you also will be composting/mulching the tree after the holidays (or leaving it out in your yard to break down). 

The next option would be to obtain a permit from the United States Forest Service to cut down a tree in your area. While this may seem counterintuitive, research shows that “using” a forest is the best way to maintain its health. Often, trees get bunched together, and removing a select few (hence the permits), helps sustain the ecosystem. Again, mulching and composting after the holidays is important. 

If you prefer or can only use an artificial tree, secondhand is best (ideally from a local source). Luckily, secondhand artificial trees are not in short supply. Be prepared (with your best intentions) to use the tree for many years. 

If your only option is to buy a new, artificial tree from the store, buy one that is of good quality, and have the plan to use it for at least 10 years. Additionally, create a tentative plan in place on what you can do with it once you’re ready to pass it along. The longer it can stay out of a landfill the better.