The other day, my mother asked me whether she ought to switch to artificial an Christmas tree, for environmental reasons. This question has been addressed by other authors (please check those links for my source information), and the short answer is “no.”
(Don’t you like straightforward answers, Mom?)
But why the answer is no is interesting, as are the exceptions–my husband and I use an artificial tree, for example.
Natural Christmas Trees
You’d think this would start with a side-by-side comparison of pros and cons of each option. After all, using a natural tree involves cutting down a tree, and that can’t be good, right? But while I admit that cutting is bad for the individual tree, that’s not how conservation works. The health of the land as a whole doesn’t depend on the longevity of individual trees, but on the functioning of a whole system. While it’s possible to imagine Christmas trees being cut in environmentally destructive circumstances, I’ve never actually heard of the Christmas tree trade being a major driver of deforestation. Instead, Christmas trees are generally grown on farms–and a Christmas tree farm is a much better bet, environmentally speaking, than, say, a housing development. The growing trees do provide some wildlife habitat, protect and develop soil, and sequester carbon.
Most of the carbon sequestered by a growing tree is, of course, released when the tree dies and the wood rots or burns, but the farm as a whole holds carbon as generations of Christmas trees grow there. And while transporting the cut tree does involve carbon emissions, but depending on how far the trees have to travel and what happens to them after Christmas, these emissions can be minimal. Typically, half of a tree’s total carbon footprint comes from the trip the family makes to bring it home. If you drive less than ten miles to get the tree, and especially if the tree is mulched afterwards, rather than landfilled, your Christmas tree can actually be carbon-negative–that it, it fights global warming, rather than adding to it.
Even if you do drive farther for your tree, its carbon footprint is still dramatically smaller than that of an artificial tree.
It might be possible to produce sustainable artificial Christmas trees, but that’s not what is available in the stores. Artificial trees are almost always made of a combination of PVC plastic and steel, which are both carbon-intensive materials. They are recyclable, but virtually no recycling centers are prepared to disentangle the two, so artificial trees are typically treated as trash. The trees are also almost all made in China, meaning that they travel much farther (at a much greater carbon cost) than real trees normally do.
It is true that real trees are used only once and artificial trees can be used over and over–but if the live tree you’re comparing it to was carbon-negative, that’s irrelevant. The real tree is always going to be better. As for comparisons with live trees that do have carbon costs, estimates vary from five to 20 years, as to how many years an artificial tree must be used before its annual carbon cost starts to equal that of the real tree.
Most people replace their artificial trees after only six years.
Whether artificial or real trees are better in the abstract is one question. “Which tree should I use?” is a completely different question. For example, our artificial tree is second-hand, and it likely would have been thrown away had we not taken it. Arguably, the environmental cost of the tree belongs at the feet of its original owners, since their decision not only paid for its manufacture, but also made certain it would one day need to be disposed of. We got the tree for free, environmentally speaking, and it saved us from having to buy any tree of any kind for well over ten years, now (my husband doesn’t remember when he got it, but it was here when I arrived).
You could also make your own artificial tree out of sustainably-sourced materials. You could also decorate a houseplant as your Christmas tree–balled and burlapped trees usually die, and spruces grown in pots as Christmas trees are only slightly more likely to make it, but you could decorate a Norfolk pine or another species that does well as a houseplant. You can do a little research to determine whether locally-grown trees are available in your area, whether Christmas trees can be mulched in your area (if you have a yard, you can also set your post-Christmas tree outside to provide cover for wild birds) and, if you want a live tree, you can make sure to pick it up from someplace less than ten miles from home (depending on the gas mileage of your vehicle).
In short, which tree you should use (assuming you want one at all) depends, in part, on your situation.