Are Artificial Christmas Trees Better for the Environment?

Are Artificial Christmas Trees Better for the Environment?

As the holiday season has already kicked off, many families have already or are about to conduct one of the most pivotal parts of Christmas; picking out, putting up, and decorating their Christmas tree. About three-quarters of the homes in America display a Christmas tree, according to the Nielsen Corporation’s survey for the American Christmas Tree Association in 2021. With the growing popularity of artificial Christmas trees in recent years, many Americans face the question of whether to purchase a natural or manufactured Christmas tree. While real trees always provide nostalgia and their piney scent, artificial trees can be much more convenient. However, what has driven most people to think about this choice is the environmental and sustainability impacts of both types of trees. While fake Christmas trees may appear to be a more sustainable option on the surface, are they actually? In short – not really, and here’s why… 

Both types of trees can have varying impacts on the environment. Although the consumption of natural trees can be harmful to the environment, in a greater number of circumstances, it has proved to not have a major environmental effect. Using real trees can even have a beneficial impact on forests and the planet. For example, pine trees that are grown to be displayed on Christmas take about seven years to grow, meaning these trees are removing harmful gases from the climate, like carbon, for those entire seven years. Now the carbon can be released back into the atmosphere if the trees are cut down or disposed of improperly, but if the trees are cared for appropriately, they can help lessen the worse impacts of the climate crisis. These trees can also help benefit the environment by providing habitats and watersheds for wildlife. Many Americans are concerned about how cutting down so many trees each year affects the environment. Truth be told, it does have much of a consequence. The majority of the Christmas trees that are consumed in America come from local tree farms and not wild forests. Each tree that is cut down on these farms is replaced with at least one other. Instead of thinking of the production of Christmas trees as deforestation, it can be thought of as similar to producing farm crops, like vegetables. Lastly, natural trees are much more sustainable when it comes to disposal. Although real Christmas trees only last one season, there are much more environmental-friendly ways to get rid of them than manufactured trees. Real Christmas trees can be recycled and composted. It is also very easy for the trees to be chipped, and in this case, the carbon the tree had collected is stored and put back into the ground. There are many more creative ways to beneficially dispose of Christmas trees, such as placing them in streams, rivers, or lakes to help control erosion and improve underwater habitats. Despite all these ways to make a positive impact when getting rid of Christmas trees, many natural ones end up in landfills at the end of the season. This causes a greater need for their correct dispense to be more widely carried out.

Artificial trees do come with some benefits but do not make huge differences generally. While a 2018 study by WAP Sustainability Consulting reported that manufactured trees have a more positive effect on the environment if they were used for more than five years, the results have been widely disputed. Other studies have shown that this is true only if the trees are used for 20 years, which most artificial trees are not. When considering if the use of fake Christmas trees is beneficial, the material, transportation, and disposal methods of the trees have to be taken into account. Most manufactured trees are made from polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC), which is made of non-eco-friendly chemicals and made in facilities with heavy pollution. PVC is also non-recyclable. In addition, almost 90 percent of artificial trees are shipped from China, causing heightened carbon emissions. Lastly, due to PVC being non-recyclable, when fake trees are thrown away, they end up in landfills where they might take up to centuries to decompose. Additionally, they release hazardous chemicals into the atmosphere. Combining all these factors, manufactured Christmas trees are not the green option they appear to be. 

Stepping away from the environmental impacts of both types of trees, natural trees also prove to have a better economic benefit. The Christmas tree industry employs over 100,000 people each season, just in the U.S. By purchasing real trees from local farms, these workers, along with the local economy and community, are being supported. With these economic benefits, farmlands are less likely to be sold and used for development purposes. However, artificial Christmas trees prove to be more cost-effective for the individual. Due to recessions, the cost of natural Christmas trees has climbed in recent years. 

After comparing real and fake trees, it seems that real ones come out on top in terms of having a more beneficial and sustainable effect on the environment. Nevertheless, this only remains true if the tree is bought locally, cared for appropriately, and recycled. Although this is the most environmental-friendly option for purchasing a Christmas tree, it most definitely does not have to be the choice people make to display in their homes. But it is important to note that there are many other important elements of the Christmas season and year-round life has a greater impact on the environment. To be more environmentally conscious during the holidays, choices when shopping and air traveling are much more important to sustainability. However, enjoying the joy of the Christmas season and concentrating on helping the climate crisis during the rest of the year is the very best option. 

To read more about a sustainable holiday season, check out: “Tips for a Sustainable Holiday Season” by Sasha Callaway ’23

Tips for a Sustainable Holiday Season

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