Natural vs. Artificial: Which Christmas Tree Option Is Better for the Climate?

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.”

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

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.

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

“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?

Ground crews will load cut and packaged Christmas trees onto 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.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, it takes an average of seven years to fully grow a Christmas tree. And as it grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. By protecting forests and planting trees, the worst effects of the climate crisis can be avoided by removing the planet-warming gas from the atmosphere.

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.

If the idea of ​​trekking through a forest to find the perfect tree intrigues you, you can purchase a permit from the US Forest Service, which encourages people to cut down their own tree instead of buying an artificial one. According to Recreation.gov, cutting down thin trees in dense areas can improve forest health.
But Finton advises against pulling a Clark Griswold and cutting down a huge tree to tow home — especially if it’s in an area you’re not allowed to enter. He recommends buying a tree from a local farm instead.
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“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.”

There is also an economic benefit to going natural, as most of the trees people end up getting are grown on nearby farms. About 15,000 farms grow Christmas trees in the US alone, and more than 100,000 people are employed in the industry full-time or part-time, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

“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.”

waste processing

Municipal workers grind up Christmas trees from the past holiday season in a wood chipper at a community park in Warminster, PA, in February 2019.
Trees pile up on the curbs after the holidays are over, and the final destination in many locations is landfills, where they contribute to emissions of methane — a potent greenhouse gas about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“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.”

National Forests Let You Cut Your Own Christmas Tree
But some towns and cities reuse the trees to benefit the climate and the environment. In New York City, trees left on curbs for a period of time are picked up to be recycled or composted. The city sanitation department is also organizing an initiative called MulchFest, where residents can have their trees shredded for mulch and used to feed other trees in the city.

“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.”

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