Less than a month before Christmas arrives and one of the most relevant discussions of the season is whether to buy an artificial Christmas tree or a natural one. A few decades ago, when the first artificial plastic trees appeared, the debate seemed to spin around the rationale that to cut down a tree is to end the life of a living being that took years to grow and that contributes to improving the oxygen we breathe, as well as maintaining the ecological balance and reducing the carbon footprint.
Although this is a correct premise, the above reasoning did not take into account the greenhouse gas emissions involved in the production of plastic, in addition to the impossibility of recycling this material and its slow degradation in the environment (more than 150 years).
According to the US Department of Commerce, most artificial Christmas trees imported into the US come from China, which means they are carried by fossil fuel-powered ships across the Pacific Ocean, then moved by heavy freight trucks.
It takes around 7 years to grow an average-sized Christmas tree, according to the site One Tree Planted. As the trees grow, they absorb carbon and use 10x fewer resources than artificial tree factories. For every tree that is cut down each year, 1 to 3 new seedling trees are planted, the Association of Christmas Tree Growers reported.
1. Carbon footprint
Artificial Christmas trees are made of plastic, commonly polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyethylene. More than 85% are made in China, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries, so their manufacture and transportation involve the emission of at least 40 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Natural trees are biodegradable and in addition to emitting a minimum of CO2 (3.5 kg), they absorb greenhouse gases throughout their life and for a few days in homes; however, whether their ecological footprint remains low depends entirely on their final destination: if they are used as compost, recycled for a carpentry shop or used as firewood, their footprint is maintained, but if they end up decomposing in a landfill, their emission increases to 16 kg per tree.
However, some more critical studies point out that the ecological advantage of natural trees is reduced when fertilizers, pesticides, water and fuel used to raise and transport them are taken into account.
With the above figures, it is estimated that an artificial Christmas tree would have to be used for about 12 years to even out its carbon footprint relative to a natural tree. In addition, while polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyethylene are usually not recyclable and take centuries to decompose, most cities have programs to recycle natural trees.
Therefore, taking all factors into account and speaking in strictly ecological terms, the most sustainable option is to get a natural tree. In terms of sustainability and social responsibility, natural trees are also winners: most of them come from community forestry farms, whose main income is the sale of Christmas trees.
If a natural Christmas tree winds up being your option, make sure it comes from a site with permits to harvest and market trees. And if you go for the artificial tree, the ultimate goal ought to to be that the tree will be reused for at least five years. The American Christmas Tree Association, a nonprofit that represents artificial tree manufacturers, commissioned WAP Sustainability Consulting for a study in 2018 on this matter, as reported by CNN. The study found the environmental impact of an artificial tree is lower if one uses the fake tree for at least five years.
After the holiday season is over, hundreds of trees appear on. According to CNN, when those trees are taken to landfills they contribute to emissions of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas roughly 80 times more potent that carbon dioxide. One Tree Planted proposes some options on how to dispose of your tree:
- Participate in a local tree recycling program if there’s one in your area
- If you have a wood chipper, chip the tree for free mulch
- Donate it to a local environmental organization, who may repurpose it for restoration projects like beefing up riparian areas, protecting fragile dunes, sheltering wildlife and more.
- Use the needles for crafts like evergreen potpourri, the trunk for natural coasters
- Strip the tree bare and use it to build a frame for vine-y garden plants like beans, cucumbers and flowers
- Secure the tree outside in a spot that’s sheltered from wind to provide a winter shelter for small mammals