Natural or artificial? The Christmas tree debate

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.

Rockefeller_Center_christmas_tree.jpg

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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6 thoughts on “Natural or artificial? The Christmas tree debate

  1. Matt Brown

    Food for thought, thanks Barbara. I guess for the masses of people like me who live in city apartments, a real tree is a really tough option. How do you dispose of it without either a car or a garden, or any kind of council pick-up? Maybe I could slice it up and eat as a sappy alternative to a week of turkey leftovers. I suspect the nearest I’ll get to a real tree is adding some baubles to the yucca plant.

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  2. Laura Wheeler

     My parents have had their artificial tree for the last 15 years-to imagine what it looks like, just picture a real tree that looks like it is wilting covered with a lot of strategically placed tinsel.  It is it is shocking to know they will have to keep it for another 5 to offset the environmental impact of chopping down a pine tree every year! Thanks for this Barbara!

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  3. Linda Lin

     I grew up with an artificial tree my parents kept for ages as well. But now it’s probably somewhere in a landfill. Darn Asian parents made in the same country as our old Xmas tree!

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  4. Barbara Ferreira

    @Matt: it may be more difficult/expensive to find an eco-friendly tree in cities such as London, but our dear friend Google shows us that there are some affordable options (here’s an example). On the other hand, the greenest alternative is actually no tree at all so some baubles hanging from a yucca plant in a vase seems like a great idea!
    @Laura & @Lin: I also grew up with an artificial Christmas tree. For ages I thought that was the best option because me and my dad weren’t taking down a tree every year. It wasn’t until I read the NYTimes article that inspired this blog post that I thought about the Christmas tree "eco-debate" again. And about how obvious it was that choosing an artificial tree was a lot worse, environmentally speaking, than going natural. 
    We still use the fake tree, 13 or 14 years after buying it. Luckily, it’s doing fine so it will certainly reach (and probably pass) the environmental threshold!

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  5. Austin Elliott

    We are real tree people, typically collecting dropped needles in a big bag. When the tree is discarded,  we remove the remaining undropped needles, add to the bag and then use the needles next spring / summer as an "anti-slug mulch" in the garden. The  branches and trunk are a bit more of a problem.  We’ve sometimes composted the small ones, and burnt the bigger ones on the open fire. And in many cities in the UK councils do run "limited period" Christmas tree recycling schemes in January   
    This year the city council have given us green recycling bins for garden and bio waste. However, this year we have a real tree complete with roots, so the idea is that after Christmas it will go out in the garden to (hopefully) grow a bit and wait for next year.   

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  6. Barbara Ferreira

    That’s great Austin! I’m glad you and are family are opting for a tree with roots. I hope it grows and lasts for years to come.
    Also, I should mention that I just found out about another interesting alternative to disposing of your real tree: eating it! Check this out. 

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