While some enjoy the smell of a real tree and the joy of picking one from a local farm, others prefer the simplicity of artificial trees that they can reuse for the coming Christmas season.
But consumers are becoming increasingly climate-conscious and it has become an essential part of the holiday decision to consider which tree will have the least impact on our rapidly warming planet. Plus, choosing a planet-friendly tree will likely put you on Santa’s good list.
So, which kind 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
It’s easy to imagine that reusing an artificial tree year after year is the most sustainable option. But Finton says that if an artificial tree is used for less than six years, the carbon cost will be higher than investing in a natural tree.
“If the artificial trees are used for longer life, that balance changes,” Finton told CNN. “And I’ve read that it would take 20 years for the carbon balance to be roughly equivalent.”
Then there is the transport aspect. According to the US Department of Commerce, most artificial Christmas trees are imported from China into the US, meaning the products are transported by fossil fuel ships across the Pacific Ocean and then transported by heavy trucks before finally hitting the distributor’s shelves. end up. or at the door of the consumer.
“Artificial trees were viewed [in the study] factors such as production and overseas transportation,” Jami Warner, executive director of ACTA, told CNN. “For real trees, planting, fertilization and watering were considered, which have an estimated field cultivation period of seven to eight years.”
What are the benefits of real trees?
When trees are cut or burned, they can release the carbon they have stored back into the atmosphere. But Doug Hundley, spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, which advocates real trees, says cutting Christmas trees on a farm is compensated when farmers immediately plant more seedlings to replace them.
“If we harvest or cut down the trees, we plant back very quickly,” Hundley said.
“For me, the benefit of going to a Christmas tree farm, which is different from cutting down a tree in the forest, is that it concentrates the impact of removing trees in one location,” he said. “And it puts the responsibility on the farmers to regenerate those trees.”
“What we’re doing by buying a natural Christmas tree is supporting local economies, local communities, local farmers and to me that’s an important part of the conservation equation,” Finton said. “If a nurseryman can derive economic benefits from his land, he is less likely to sell it for development and less likely to use it for other purposes.”
“Real Christmas trees that end up in landfills are strongly discouraged,” Hundley said, adding that there should be “separate yard waste areas for Christmas trees to go to.”
“Once the tree is done with homeowner use, it’s very easy and common in America to have the tree shredded into mulch — and that stored carbon is put back into the ground,” Hundley added.
Finton also says that former Christmas trees can be reused to restore their habitat; they can help control erosion if placed along stream 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 decompose – or in incinerators, where dangerous chemicals are released.
it comes down to
When we weigh the complicated pros and cons of the climate, real Christmas trees have an edge. But if you choose to artificially cover your halls, buy a tree that you will love and reuse for years to come.
Either way, Finton said, people need to 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 have an even bigger impact on the climate, like driving less. or advocating for policies that expand renewable energy,” Finton said. “Enjoy the holidays and focus on other aspects of your life to reduce the impacts of climate change.”