Science

Are real or artificial Christmas trees better for the environment?

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Many American households are starting to prepare for one of the biggest holidays of the year: Christmas. And for those celebrating, that often means figuring out what to do with a tree — the time-honored centerpiece of the season’s festivities.

Which type of tree or, in some cases, trees you choose depends largely on your personal preference. For many people, a real tree represents tradition – a chance to reminisce about finding “The One” and dragging it home from the woods or a nearby treebed – with a fresh scent that helps create a holiday atmosphere . On the other hand, artificial trees offer convenience as they can be reused year after year and usually come with built-in lighting or decorations.

But with more consumers becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of their purchases on the environment, you may be wondering which type of Christmas tree is more environmentally friendly. Here’s what you need to know when it comes to whether real or artificial trees are better for the environment.

The argument for real trees

While you may worry that cutting down tens of millions of trees each year amounts to an environmental nightmare, a real Christmas tree can be more sustainable than an artificial one, says Bill Ulfelder, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in New York.

“There should be no remorse, no guilt, like, ‘Oh my god, it’s a cut down tree.’ It’s the absolute opposite,” says Ulfelder, who has a master’s degree in forestry. “Trees are a renewable resource. When they’re cut down, they’re harvested in a way that they’re replanted, so it’s a great renewable resource that goes a long way benefits for the environment, conservation and wildlife.”

First, living trees absorb carbon dioxide — a major contributor to global warming — from the air and release oxygen. According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), a trade group that partly represents growers and sellers of real trees, it can take at least seven years for a Christmas tree to grow to its typical height of between six and six feet. While estimates can vary considerably, one study suggests that growing Christmas 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 after they’re cut down and disposed of.

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As these trees grow, they not only provide clean air, but can also serve as a habitat for wildlife, help improve water quality and slow erosion, and preserve green spaces. Christmas trees are often grown on slopes that are not suitable for growing other types of crops, and for each tree harvested, one to three seedlings are planted the following spring, according to NCTA.

In addition, real trees can be repurposed in a way that continues to 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. The trees can also be used to prevent dune erosion or sunk into ponds and lakes to create natural habitats for freshwater animals, Ulfelder says.

“There is life for it [real] Christmas trees after Christmas,” he says.

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But Ulfelder and other experts recognize there are environmental costs associated with growing and distributing real trees. Growing trees requires water and, in many cases, fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, felling trees and shipping trees from farms to stores or lots can cause emissions.

Still, real trees may be preferable to artificial trees when it comes to overall sustainability, which also takes economic and social impacts into account, says Bert Cregg, a professor of horticulture and forestry at Michigan State University. “I think the real trees stand head and shoulders above that,” says Cregg.

There are nearly 15,000 Christmas tree farms in the United States, the vast majority of which are family-owned businesses, and the industry provides full or part-time employment to more than 100,000 people, according to NCTA.

“Like any other agriculture, are you going to support local farmers or are you going to support a big manufacturer somewhere else?” says Cregg.

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Most artificial trees sold in the US are manufactured in China, according to NCTA, citing data from the US Department of Commerce. The trees are usually loaded onto ocean freighters that burn fossil fuels destined for the US, where they are distributed to retailers across the country. But experts say the emissions associated with shipping artificial trees are less than what is produced when they are made.

Artificial trees are often made of plastic, a petroleum-based material, and steel. Many trees use polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which has been associated with health and environmental risks. Trees can also be made from polyethylene, another type of plastic, says Mac Harman, founder and CEO of Balsam Hill, a leading retailer of artificial Christmas trees and holiday ornaments in the United States.

While not much about artificial trees may sound environmentally friendly at first, they may be the more environmentally conscious choice in certain cases, according to the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), a nonprofit industry group that represents manufacturers of artificial trees.

A 2018 study analyzed real and artificial Christmas trees using several environmental metrics, including global warming potential, primary energy demand, and water use. and found that artificial trees may have less environmental impact if reused for at least five years compared to buying a new real tree each year.

“The impact of both types of trees varies based on how far consumers travel to get their tree, how they dispose of their tree (for live trees, landfill, burn or compost), and how long consumers use their trees,” according to a summary of the study by ACTA, which released the assessment of WAP Sustainability Consulting.

But another in-depth study published in 2009 concluded that artificial trees would only become better than natural trees if they were used for 20 years.

According to Harman, a Nielsen survey paid for by ACTA found that nearly 50 percent of artificial tree owners said they plan to use their trees for 10 or more seasons.

He adds that artificial trees are also often given away or donated, which can extend their lifespan. The downside, however, is that once these trees are no longer of use to anyone, “they usually end up in landfills at this point,” he says.

More plastic ending up in landfills should worry consumers, Ulfelder says.

“If you really keep artificial trees long enough, the carbon footprint might be smaller, but then you still have plastic and then plastic goes to landfill,” he says. “So that’s just one way of looking at the equation, and I think we just have to look at the whole of the nature benefits of the natural trees.”

If you’re interested in a real tree, Ulfelder recommends buying locally whenever possible. Driving a long distance in a gas-guzzling car to get to a farm or vendor can be a significant source of emissions. Buying your tree from a farm or lot in your area can also help support the local economy. According to NCTA, the top Christmas tree-producing states are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Washington.

Looking for an organically grown Christmas tree is one extra step you can take to help the environment, Ulfelder says.

The US Forest Service also sells permits to people who want to get out into the wilderness and cut down their own tree. “For every tree that is found, cut down and taken home as a holiday object, you also contribute to the overall health of the forest,” according to a government website that sells the permits.

Buying a live tree, or one that can be planted outside, is another option. “The big trick is letting the tree live afterward,” says Cregg.

If you have a living tree, it’s critical not to keep it in your home for too long, especially if you live in the northern parts of the country, or it will begin to lose its ability to withstand cold temperatures, says he. He suggests leaving the tree for up to two weeks before moving it to an unheated garage or patio until spring. “Then you can plant it like your normal spring planting routine.”

It’s also important to care for real trees, says Cregg. The trees need a lot of water, and he recommends checking your tree stand daily to make sure your tree isn’t drying out.

And how you dispose of your real tree matters. “When people put the tree in a bonfire, all that carbon goes back into the atmosphere,” says Cregg.

If you plan on mulching your tree, be sure to remove all decorations, Ulfelder says. Leftover ornaments, lights, or bits of tinsel can give mulchers a headache.

For those who prefer artificial trees, try to keep them up and running for as long as possible and not in landfills.

And while real and artificial trees can have different effects, experts say it’s important to consider this holiday decision in the context of other personal choices that could contribute to climate change.

“At the end of the day, assuming an artificial tree is used for at least five years, neither tree has a significant impact on the environment compared to other activities of daily living, such as driving,” says Harman.

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