It’s the same Christmas tree debate year after year. We really shouldn’t cut down trees just to put them in our house for a couple of days, but then again are artificial alternatives really better? Is it better to cut down a tree and carry it and then just let it rot, or use a piece of plastic that’s likely never getting recycling? Isn’t there anything better that we can do?
Ultimately, this depends a great deal on how the Christmas tree is grown or made, and as we’ll see shortly, there absolutely are better alternatives.
Artificial Christmas Trees
Artificial Christmas trees are artificial trees manufactured specifically for the purpose of being used as Christmas trees — usually they come in the shape of a small fir. The most common ones are made from PVC plastic, although there are also other, more creative alternatives. Most people would be surprised to find out that in many ways, artificial trees actually do more harm to the environment than cutting natural trees; in other words, the idea of artificial trees being eco-friendly is, as a researcher at Kansas State University put it – “an urban myth”.
A peer-reviewed study released in 2011 found that the impacts of natural and artificial trees are almost the same, with the artificial ones being slightly worse. A two-meter artificial tree produces the equivalent of around 40 kilograms of carbon dioxide, more than ten times that of a real tree that’s burned after Christmas.
The key here is PVC. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a petroleum-derived plastic. The main raw material for fake Christmas trees is both non-renewable and polluting, and you can’t recycle it. Furthermore, PVC production results in the unhealthy emission of a number of carcinogens, such as dioxin, ethylene dichloride, and vinyl chloride. Also, lead is sometimes used to create the actual needles, and lead has a number of significant negative health effects, including kidney, neurological, and reproductive system damage. Also, vacuuming around the tree can spread tiny lead particles in the air, which creates an inhalation danger.
It also requires a lot of energy to create and transport fake trees. You need to reuse the tree for at least 10 years before the total energy used for the artificial tree is less than the energy cost of using a new, live tree each year. There is also the question of transportation, though recent studies have shown that that’s not that much of a problem.
“The reality is that the long distance transport from China is pretty efficient,” says Laura Morrison, a Senior Consultant at PE International who investigated the matter.
Natural Christmas Trees are almost always evergreen conifers, such as spruce, pine, or fir. The custom of the Christmas trees developed in early modern Germany with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly even the 15th century. The history of this tradition has actually nothing to do with Christianity — Vikings and other northern populations would decorate their windows and homes with evergreens to keep witches and other spirits away. However, many Christians embraced it.
Each year, 33 to 36 million Christmas trees are produced in America, and 50 to 60 million are produced in Europe. Naturally, growing and then cutting down this many trees is a big problem, both ethically and environmentally — but is it worse than polluting?
Natural tree growers contend that artificial trees are more environmentally harmful than their natural counterparts, but trade groups such as the American Christmas Tree Association claim the exact opposite — so you can’t really rely on either of their claims considering their obvious bias. So what does the science say?
Live trees are typically grown as a crop and replanted in rotation after cutting, often providing suitable habitats for wildlife. While poor management can lead to poor habitat and soil degradation, Christmas tree plantations are generally decent habitats. Another drawback to living trees is that you only use them for a short while before throwing them away. Sadly, even though they are biodegradable and highly recyclable, Christmas trees are sometimes simply thrown away. However, more and more are being recycled to be used as mulch or to prevent erosion. Real trees are also carbon-neutral, though emissions can occur from farming activities and transportation. They are also more expensive than artificial trees since you need to purchase a new one every year.
Conclusion and best alternatives
Both natural and fake Christmas trees have an environmental impact. Most people don’t think about it, but artificial trees have a slightly larger negative impact, requiring more energy to produce, leading to pollution, and posing potential health hazards. Cutting down natural trees, even if they are recycled afterward and have a smaller carbon footprint, is unethical, and you would have a much larger environmental bonus if you simply let them grow. You would get a better habitat, more carbon sequestration, better landscapes, and so on. But if you want to make a sustainable decision this Christmas, you should spend a moment and compare.
If an artificial tree is used for several years, it can absolutely have a lower environmental impact than natural trees. However, in general, it should be used for around 10 years, whereas most people only reuse their artificial Christmas trees for around 4 years. However, it’s not possible to give a blanket conclusion on whether real or artificial Christmas trees are better. It depends on where you buy it from (natural trees are heavier and produce more emissions to be transported), it depends on how the natural tree is grown, or what type of plastic the artificial tree is made from. Buying an artificial tree every couple of years is definitely not the way to go, but buying big, natural trees from far away is also definitely not ideal.
If you really want to have a green Christmas and lower your negative environmental impact, you can, of course, just not buy any tree. Decorate your house, maybe get some fallen branches, whatever… just don’t get a tree. You can also try out several more creative, non-standard Christmas tree options made from wood.
Ultimately, a better choice for the environment may be to use a natural tree that has been sustainably grown and harvested, and probably the best choice is to use a potted tree that can be planted after the holiday season. A potted Christmas tree can make for a sustainable Yuletide to remember, and it’s a good conversation starter too.
This is what science says… the decision is yours. Choose responsibly!