Are real or artificial Christmas trees better for the environment?

Are real or artificial Christmas trees better for the environment?


Many American households are beginning to prepare for one of the biggest holidays of the year: Christmas. And for those celebrating, that often means knowing what to do about a tree – the centerpiece of the season’s festivities.

The type of tree or, in some cases, trees you choose is largely down to personal preference. For many people, a real tree represents tradition – a chance to recreate memories of finding “The One” and bringing it home from the forest or from a neighborhood tree lot – with a fresh scent that helps to create a holiday atmosphere. On the other hand, artificial trees are practical because they can be reused year after year and usually come with built-in lights or decorations.

But with more and more consumers becoming more concerned about the environmental impact of their purchases, you might be wondering which type of Christmas tree is the most planet-friendly. Here’s what you need to know to know whether real or artificial trees are better for the environment.

The Real Trees Argument

Although you may fear that cutting down tens of millions of trees each year is an environmental nightmare, a real Christmas tree can be more sustainable than an artificial tree, 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 tree.’ Quite the opposite,” says Ulfelder, who holds a master’s degree in forestry. “Trees are a renewable resource. which offers many benefits for the environment, conservation and nature.

For one thing, living trees absorb carbon dioxide – one of the main contributors 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 takes at least seven years to grow a Christmas tree to its typical height of six to seven feet. While estimates can vary widely, one study suggests 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 those trees are handled once they’re cut down and thrown away.

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

Plus, real trees can be reused in a way that continues to benefit the environment even after they’re dead. Cities like New York and DC have municipal programs that collect dead Christmas trees and turn them into mulch. Trees can also be used to prevent dune erosion or sunk into ponds and lakes to create natural habitats for freshwater wildlife, Ulfelder says.

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

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But Ulfelder and other experts acknowledge that there is an environmental cost to growing and distributing real trees. Growing trees requires water and, in many cases, fertilizers and pesticides. On top of that, harvesting trees and shipping them from farms to stores or lots can produce emissions.

Still, real trees may be the preferred choice over artificial trees when it comes to overall sustainability, which also considers economic and social impacts, says Bert Cregg, professor of horticulture and forestry at Michigan State University. “That’s where I think the real trees are above the artificial trees,” Cregg says.

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

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

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Most artificial trees sold in the United States are made in China, according to the NCTA, citing data from the US Department of Commerce. The trees are typically loaded onto fossil fuel-burning ocean freighters bound for the United States, where they are distributed to retailers nationwide. But experts say the emissions associated with transporting the artificial trees are less than what is produced during their manufacture.

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

Although little about artificial trees initially seems eco-friendly, in some cases they can be the most eco-friendly choice, 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 across different environmental metrics, including global warming potential, primary energy demand, and water consumption. among others, and found that artificial trees can have less impact on the environment if reused for at least five years compared to buying a new real tree each year.

According to a summary of the ACTA study, which published the assessment conducted by WAP Sustainability Consulting.

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

According to Harman, an ACTA-funded Nielsen survey found that nearly 50% of artificial tree owners said they plan to use their trees for 10 or more seasons.

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

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

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

If you’re interested in a real tree, Ulfelder recommends trying to buy local 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. Purchasing your tree from a farm or land in your area can also help support the local economy. According to the NCTA, the top Christmas tree growing states are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.

Finding an organic Christmas tree is an extra step you can take to help the environment, says Ulfelder.

The US Forest Service also sells permits to people who want to get out into the wild and cut down their own tree. “For every tree found, cut and brought home as a vacation item, you are also contributing to the overall health of the forest,” according to a government website selling the permits.

Purchasing a live or replantable tree outdoors is another option. “The big thing is to keep the tree alive afterwards,” says Cregg.

If you have a live tree, it’s essential not to keep it inside your home for too long, especially if you’re in the north of the country, or it could start to lose its ability to withstand cold temperatures, says -he. He suggests letting the tree stand 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 take care of real trees, says Cregg. 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. “If people put the tree in a bonfire, all that carbon is back in the atmosphere,” Cregg says.

If you plan to mulch your tree, be sure to remove all decorations, says Ulfelder. Leftover ornaments, lights, or bits of garland can create a headache for grinders.

For those who prefer artificial trees, try to keep them in use and out of landfills for as long as possible.

And while real and artificial trees can have varying impacts, experts say it’s important to consider this vacation decision in the context of other personal choices that may contribute to climate change.

“Ultimately, 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 like driving. of a car,” says Harman.

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