While some revel in the scent of a real tree and the joy of picking one out at a local farm, others prefer the simplicity of artificial trees they can reuse for Christmases to come.
But consumers are becoming more climate-conscious, and considering which tree has the lowest impact on our rapidly warming planet has become a vital part of the holiday decision. Plus, choosing a planet-friendly tree will likely get you on Santa’s good list.
So, which kind of tree has the lowest carbon footprint — a natural tree or a store-bought plastic tree? It’s complicated, experts say.
“It’s definitely a lot more nuanced and complex than you think,” Andy Finton, the landscape conservation director and forest ecologist for the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, told CNN.
We’ve made a list — and checked it twice — of the things to know before you choose between real and artificial.
The case for artificial trees
It’s easy to imagine that reusing an artificial tree year after year is the more sustainable option. But Finton says if an artificial tree is used for fewer than six years, the carbon cost is greater than investing in a natural tree.
“If the artificial trees are used for a longer lifespan, that balance changes,” Finton told CNN. “And I’ve read that it would take 20 years for the carbon balance to be about equivalent.”
Then there’s the transportation aspect. According to the US Department of Commerce, most artificial Christmas trees are imported into the US from China, meaning the products are carried by fossil fuel-powered ships across the Pacific Ocean, then moved by heavy freight trucks before it ultimately lands on the distributor’s shelves or the consumer’s doorstep.
“Artificial trees were looked at [in the study] for factors such as manufacturing and overseas transportation,” Jami Warner, executive director of ACTA, told CNN. “Planting, fertilizing and watering were taken into account for real trees, which have an approximate field cultivation period of seven to eight years.”
What are the benefits of real trees?
If trees are cut down or burned, they can release the carbon they’ve been storing back into the atmosphere. But Doug Hundley, spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, which advocates for real trees, says the act of cutting down Christmas trees from a farm is balanced out when farmers immediately plant more seedlings to replace them.
“When we harvest the trees or cut them, we plant back very quickly,” Hundley said.
“To me, the benefit of going to a Christmas tree farm, which is different than cutting a tree in the forest, is that it concentrates the impact of removing trees into one location,” he said. “And it puts the responsibility on the farmers to regenerate those trees.”
“What we’re doing by purchasing a natural Christmas tree is supporting local economies, local communities, local farmers and to me, that’s a key part of the conservation equation,” Finton said. “When a tree grower can reap economic benefits from their land, they’re less likely to sell it for development and less likely to convert it to other uses.”
“Real Christmas trees ending up in landfills is very much discouraged,” Hundley said, adding that there needs to be “separate areas for yard waste where Christmas trees can go.”
“When the tree is finished being used by the homeowner, it’s very easy and and common in America to have the tree chipped up into mulch — and that’s stored carbon is put back in the ground,” Hundley added.
Finton also says former Christmas trees can be reused for habitat restoration; they can help control erosion if placed along stream and river banks, and can even help underwater habitats thrive if they are placed in rivers and lakes.
The end of life for an artificial tree is much different. They end up in landfills — where they could take hundreds of years to decompose — or incinerators, where they release hazardous chemicals.
The bottom line
Weighing the complicated climate pros and cons, real Christmas trees have the edge. But if you choose to deck your halls artificially, get a tree you’re going to love and reuse for many 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 a decision, you should feel good about your decision, because there’s so many other things we can do in our lives that have an even greater climate impact — such as driving less or advocating for policies that expand renewable energy,” Finton said. “Enjoy the holidays and focus on other aspects of your life to reduce the impacts of climate change.”