But as more and more people are concerned about their purchases’ environmental impact, you may be wondering which type of Christmas tree is more planet-friendly. This is what you need to know when it comes to whether real or artificial trees are better for the environment.
While you may be concerned that tens of millions of trees fall into environmental slumber each year, a real Christmas tree is more sustainable than an artificial one, says Bill Ulfelder, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in New York.
“There should be no predator, there should be no fault, so that, ‘Oh my goodness, the wood is cut.’ It is quite the opposite, says Ulfelder, who holds the rank of master in the forest. “Trees are a renewable resource. When they are cut down, they are harvested in the same way that they are planted, so it is a great renewable resource that provides many environmental, conservation and nature 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 for a Christmas tree to grow to its typical height of between six and 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 that growing native 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 are cut down and discarded.
As many as six US tree species are threatened with extinction
When these trees grow, they not only provide clean air, but they can also serve as habitats for wildlife, help improve water quality and slow erosion, and maintain green spaces. Native trees are often grown on slopes that would not be suitable for other types of fruit crops, and for every tree grown, one to three seeds are sown the following spring, according to the NCTA.
Rather, real trees can be planted in ways that benefit the environment even after they are no longer alive. Cities like New York and DC have municipal programs that collect dead Christmas trees and turn them into mulch. Trees can also be used to prevent dune erosion or submergence in ponds and lakes to create natural habitats for freshwater wildlife, Ulfelder says.
“It’s not life” [real] Christmas trees after Christmas,” he said.
The gene for eating a tree that was almost lost could be revived. Not everyone is on board.
But Ulfelder and other experts acknowledge that there is an environmental price to farming and distributing real trees. Growing trees requires water and, in many cases, fertilizers and pesticides. On top of that, trees and ships can produce harvests from farms to warehouses or lots.
However, real trees are 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 the University of Michigan. Where I think there are real trees above my head and shoulders, there are artificial trees, says Cregg.
There are nearly fifteen thousand timber farms in the United States, most of which are domestic operations, and the industry provides employment for more than 100,000 people, according to the NCTA.
“Like any other agriculture, are you supporting local farmers or are you supporting another big manufacturer?” Cregg says.
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Most of the artificial trees sold in the US are manufactured in China, according to NCTA, data from the US Department of Commerce. The trees are typically loaded on fossil-fuel ocean freighters bound for the US, where they are distributed to retailers nationwide. But experts say the emissions associated with transporting artificial trees are less significant than those they create when they are produced.
Artificial trees are often made of plastic, petroleum-based materials, and steel. Many trees use polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which has been linked to health and environmental risks. Even trees can be made from polyethylene, another type of plastic, says Mac Harman, founder and CEO of Balsam Hill, a leading seller of artificial Christmas trees and holiday decorations in the United States.
Although not much about artificial trees initially sounds Earth-friendly, in some cases they can be a more environmentally conscious choice, according to the American Christmas Association (Acta), a non-profit group that represents the artificial tree industry.
One 2018 study analyzed real and artificial Christmas trees across various environmental metrics, including global warming potential, primary energy demand and water use; in others, he found that artificial trees can have less environmental impact if they are returned for at least five years compared to buying a new real tree every year.
“The impact of both types of trees varies depending on how far consumers go to get their tree, how they dispose of their tree (whether live trees, landfill, incinerate or compost), and how long consumers use their trees,” according to the sum of the study by ACTA, which released the assessment by WAP Sustainability Consulting.
But another more in-depth study released in 2009 concluded that artificial trees would only do better than natural ones if they were used for 20 years.
According to Harman Nielsen of Bonn, the findings purchased by ACTA found that nearly 50 percent of artificial tree owners reported planning to use their trees for 10 or more seasons.
He also adds that artificial trees are often donated or donated, which can extend their lifespan. It is the beginning, however, that once these trees are of no further use, “mostly in the lands in this place,” he said.
Consumers should worry about more plastic eventually ending up in landfills, Ulfelder says.
“If you keep the artificial trees really long enough, the carbon footprint can be smaller, but then you’re still holding the plastic and then the plastic is going into the landfill,” he said. “Therefore, this is one way to look at the comparison, and I seem to look at the whole nature of the natural benefit of the trees.”
If you’re interested in a real tree, Ulfelder recommends buying local whenever possible. Driving a long distance in a guzzling car to get to the farm or shop can be a significant source of emissions. Buying your tree from a farm or lot in your area can help the local economy. The top Christmas tree producing states include Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington, according to the NCTA.
Looking forward to an organically grown Christmas tree is an added step toward helping your family, Ulfelder says.
US Services also sells permits to people who want to go out into the wild and cut down their own tree. “Every tree that was found was cut down and brought home as a holiday fixture, also contributing to the overall health of the forest,” according to the local government’s permit to sell.
Buying a live tree, or one that can be stored outside, is another option. “The big trick is making the tree live later,” Cregg says.
If you have a live tree, it’s critical that you don’t keep it in your home for too long, especially if you’re in the northern parts, or it will start to lose its ability to bloom, he says. He suggests leaving the tree for two weeks at the most before moving it to a dry place or patio until spring. “Then you can plant it like a normal spring planting routine.”
It’s also important to take care of real trees, Cregg said. Trees need a lot of water and it is recommended to check your tree daily to make sure your tree does not dry out.
And how do you arrange the real tree of your affairs. “If they put a tree on fire, it’s all carbon in the air,” Cregg says.
If you want to mulch your tree, make sure to remove the decorations, Ulfelder says. The rest of the decorations, lights or pieces of paint can create mulchers.
For those who prefer artificial trees, try to keep them in use and land as long as possible.
And although real and artificial trees can have different impacts, experts say it’s important to consider this holiday decision in the context of other personal choices that can contribute to climate change.
“At the end of the day, assuming that the artificial tree is used for at least five years, neither tree has a significant impact on the environment compared to other activities of daily life like driving a car,” Harman says.