Christmas is around the corner so you probably made your choice already. Perhaps you opted for a real tree because of its unique pine scent, or maybe you chose the fake, more long-lasting option instead. If environmental factors weighed in your choice, you might, naively, have gone for an artificial tree. After all, if you use it for a decade, 10 less trees will be cut down. But is artificial the greener choice?
It doesn’t take more than a Google search to find the answer, a big round no.
If you think about it, artificial trees are made from plastic and metal and typically contain polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which is not widely recyclable. After 6 years, the average life span of an artificial tree in North America, it will most likely end up in a landfill. In addition, the overwhelming majority of artificial trees sold in Western countries are manufactured in Asia and transported by boat and/or train to Europe and North America. If you don’t drive for hours every time you want to get a real tree, the carbon footprint of the artificial choice is far superior to that of going natural.
In a study released last year, an independent environmental consulting firm from Montreal, Canada, compared the environmental impact of artificial and real Christmas trees. The analysis focused on trees bought in Montreal that were either harvested in a plantation located 150 km from the city or manufactured in China. “When compared on an annual basis, the artificial tree, which has a life span of six years, has three times more impacts on climate change and resource depletion than the natural tree,” the study found.
Many countries, such as the US and the UK, have farms where Christmas trees are grown for a number of year with the specific purpose of being harvested, being replaced when cut down. During their life time, the trees provide natural habitat for birds and other animals, they produce oxygen and fix carbon in the soil and in their branches. The fact that real trees are biodegradable is another environmental benefit of choosing a natural tree as opposed to buying an artificial one.
But going natural also has its drawbacks. In cities where the infrastructure needed for collecting and composting Christmas trees is inexistent, natural trees are not recycled. Another disadvantage is the use of pesticides; non-organic trees are grown with the aid of chemicals, which may end up polluting local watersheds.
There are, however, environmentally-friendly ways around these problems, such as making sure your Christmas tree is harvested from an organic farm. And if tree composting is not available in your city, there are a few green alternatives to dispose of it, including using the tree as mulch or, if the roots are still intact, planting it for next Christmas.
If you bought an artificial tree already, stick to it. Try to use it as long as possible, hopefully for over 20 years, at which point the environmental impact of chopping down a pine or a fir every year outweighs that of producing and transporting a single fake tree.
But it you have not yet made your choice, you may want to grab the axe and “go chop down a tree”, even if you are a tree hugger.