Each year the debate occurs over which type of Christmas tree is better for the environment: real or artificial. And each year the answer is: it depends. Regarding environmental impact, there are multiple factors to consider.
Nearly all real Christmas trees sold worldwide are grown on tree farms, dispelling the myth that buying a real tree contributes to depleting forests. Christmas trees are raised similarly to other agricultural crops. When a tree is cut, one to three seedlings are replanted in its place, making them carbon neutral. Christmas trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen; provide habitat for birds and animals; and preserve farmland and green space which is often covered in grass and flowers, attracting bees. Negative environmental impacts include transportation costs along with the use of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides by tree growers.
As for artificial trees, 92% are imported from China which creates substantial transportation costs. They are constructed from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, steel, and aluminum. Their most positive impact is the fact that they can be used for multiple years and they are cost effective over time. So, although the initial environmental costs are much higher when compared to real Christmas trees, keeping an artificial tree spreads those effects (greenhouse gasses, natural resource usage, carcinogen production, etc.) out over several years; the number of years necessary is up for debate. Some say reusing an artificial tree for five years is enough to balance the costs of purchasing a real tree every year, while others claim it takes over twenty. What is not up for debate is that artificial trees are nonrenewable and, once that discarded tree ends up in the landfill, it will be there for centuries.
The same cannot be said for real trees. While trees that do end up in landfills produce methane gas, most municipalities offer Christmas tree recycling, called “treecycling.” Those discarded trees are turned into mulch, compost, or biofuel. Some are chipped and used for hiking paths and playgrounds. With 4000 available recycling programs in the US, about 93% of all real Christmas trees are “treecycled.” And if one can buy a tree locally, that purchase supports the local economy and reduces the environmental footprint of transportation costs.
Another Christmas tree option that is gaining momentum is purchasing a “living” tree. Farmers grow the tree’s roots into a ball which is then wrapped in burlap. These trees can be used up to two weeks indoors when planted in potting soil or mulch. After that amount of time, they can be planted outside in warmer climates. Certain companies will even “rent” living trees and pick them up after the holidays to be replanted.
Fir or Faux? Millennials and eco-conscious young adults are increasingly choosing renewable, biodegradable real Christmas trees. And, overwhelmingly, environmentalists agree.