Natural versus artificial: Which Christmas tree choice is better for the climate?

While some revel in the scent of real trees and the joy of picking up a tree from a local farm, others love the simplicity of artificial trees they can reuse for upcoming Christmases.

But consumers are becoming more climate-conscious, and considering which trees have the lowest impact on our rapidly warming planet has become an important part of holiday decisions. Plus, choosing a planet-friendly tree will likely land you on Santa’s good list.

So, which plants have the lowest carbon footprint – natural or store-bought plastic? It’s complicated, experts say.

“It’s definitely more nuanced and complex than you think,” Andy Finton, director of landscape conservation and forest ecologist at Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, told CNN.

We’ve made a list – and checked it twice – of things to know before you choose between real and artificial.

The case of artificial trees

Christmas trees are displayed for sale at a store in Chicago, Illinois, in November 2020.

It’s easy to imagine that reusing an artificial tree year after year is the more sustainable option. But Finton said if an artificial tree is used for less than six years, the carbon cost will be greater than the investment in a natural tree.

Finton told CNN: “If artificial trees are used longer, that balance will shift. “And I’ve read that it will take 20 years for the carbon balance to come to par.”

The world is relying on giant carbon exhaust fans to clean up our climate mess.  That is a big risk.
That’s because artificial trees are usually made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. Plastics are derived from petroleum and created at polluting petrochemical facilities. Studies also have PVC link with cancer and other environmental and public health risks.

Then there’s the shipping aspect. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, most artificial Christmas trees are imported into the United States from China, meaning the products are shipped by fossil fuel-powered ships across the Pacific Ocean, then shipped by vehicle. heavy loads before landing on the distributor’s shelf. or the threshold of the consumer.

The American Christmas Tree Association, a non-profit representing artificial tree manufacturers, has authorized the WAP Sustainability Advisory for a study in 2018 shows the environmental impact of artificial trees better than real trees if you use fake trees for at least five years.

“Artificial tree has been considered [in the study] Jami Warner, executive director of ACTA, told CNN. As for factors like production and shipping abroad, “Planting, fertilizing, and watering were taken into account for real plants, which have been in the field for about seven to eight years.”

What are the benefits of real trees?

Employees line up to cut and pack 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 approx. 500,000 trees per season.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, it takes an average of seven years to grow a complete Christmas tree. And as it grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. Protecting forests and planting trees can help avert the worst effects of the climate crisis by remove hot gas to the planet from the atmosphere.

If trees are cut down or burned, they can release the carbon they have stored back into the atmosphere. But Doug Hundley, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, which advocates for real trees, said the act of cutting down Christmas trees from a single farm would be balanced as farmers immediately planted many seedlings instead. .

“When we harvest or cut trees, we plant them back very quickly,” says Hundley.

If the idea of ​​walking through the woods to find the perfect tree is appealing, you can purchase permits from the United States Forest Service, encouraging people to cut down trees themselves instead of buying artificial trees. According to, felling trees in dense areas can improve forest health.
But Finton doesn’t recommend pulling a Clark Griswold and cut down a large tree to take home – especially if it’s in an area where you don’t have permission. Instead, he recommends getting plants from a local farm.
Water your or someone else's Christmas tree, US safety team alerts in an alarming alert

“For me, the benefit of going to a Christmas tree farm as opposed to cutting down trees in the woods is that it centralizes the impact of tree removal in one spot,” he said. “And it puts the onus on the farmers to regenerate those trees.”

There is also an economic benefit to leaving it wild, as most of the trees people get are grown on nearby farms. About 15,000 Christmas tree farms in the US alone, employing more than 100,000 full-time or part-time workers in the industry, 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 for me it’s an important part of the conservation equation.” survive,” Finton said. “When a grower can derive economic benefit from their land, they are less likely to sell it to grow and less likely to convert it to other uses.”

Disposal problem

City workers grind Christmas trees from this past holiday season in a wood chipper at a community park in Warminster, PA, in February 2019.
Trees pile up on the sidewalks after the holidays are over, and the final destination in many locations is landfills, where they contribute to methane emissions – strong greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is almost 80 times stronger.

“Truly Christmas trees that end up in landfills are highly discouraged,” says Hundley, adding that there should be “separate areas for yard waste where Christmas trees can be stored.” can go to”.

The National Forest will let you cut down your own Christmas tree
But some towns and cities reuse trees to benefit the climate and the environment. In New York City, trees left on the sidewalk within a certain time frame are picked up for recycling or composting. The city’s sanitation department also organizes an initiative called MulchFest, where residents can bring in their chopped trees for mulch and used to nourish other trees in the city.

“Once the tree is complete and used by the homeowner, it is very easy and common in the US for the tree to be cut down into mulch – and the stored carbon is returned to the ground,” adds Hundley.

Finton also says old Christmas trees can be reused for habitat restoration; They can help control erosion if placed along stream and riverbanks, and can even help aquatic habitats thrive if they are placed in rivers and lakes.

The end of life of an artificial tree is much different. They end up in landfills – where they can take hundreds of years to decompose – or incinerators, where they release harmful chemicals.

Key point

Weighing the pros and cons of a complex climate, the Christmas tree actually has the upper hand. But if you choose to decorate your hallway artificially, get a tree that you will love and use again for years.

Either way, Finton said, people should feel good about their decision and find other ways to tackle the climate crisis.

“It’s a debate, but once you’ve made your decision, you should feel good about your decision, because there are so many other things we can do in our lives that have an impact. the climate impact is even greater – such as driving less or advocating for policies that will expand renewable energy,” says Finton. “Enjoy the holidays and focus on other aspects of your life to reduce the impact of climate change.”


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