Natural vs. artificial: Which Christmas tree option is better for climate?

While some enjoy the scent of a real tree and the joy of picking one from a local farm, others prefer the simplicity of artificial trees that they can reuse for upcoming Christmases.

But consumers are becoming more climate conscious, and thinking about which tree has the least impact on our rapidly warming planet has become a vital part of the holiday decision. Plus, choosing a planet-friendly tree will likely put you on your good Santa list.

So, which type of tree has the lowest carbon footprint – a natural tree or a store-bought plastic tree? Experts say it’s complicated.

“It’s definitely more subtle and complex than you think,” Andy Fenton, director of landscape conservation and forest ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, told CNN.

We’ve made a list – and double-checked – of the things you need to know before choosing between real and fake.

The case for artificial trees

It’s easy to imagine that reusing an artificial tree year after year is the most sustainable option. But Fenton says that if an artificial tree has been used for less than six years, the carbon cost is greater than investing in a natural tree.

“If artificial trees are used for longer, that balance shifts,” Fenton told CNN. “And I’ve read that it will take 20 years for the carbon balance to be roughly.”

The world is relying on giant carbon-sucking fans to clean up the climate chaos.  It's a big risk.
That’s because artificial trees are usually made of polyvinyl chloride or PVC. The plastic is petroleum-based and produced in petrochemical facilities that cause pollution. Studies have also linked PVC to cancer and other risks to public health and the environment.

Then there is the transportation aspect. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, most artificial Christmas trees are imported into the United States from China, which means the products are transported by fossil-fueled ships across the Pacific Ocean, then ferried by heavy freight trucks before finally landing on distributor shelves. or the consumer’s doorstep.

The American Christmas Tree Association, a nonprofit organization representing artificial tree manufacturers, commissioned WAP Sustainability Consulting to conduct a study in 2018 that found that the environmental impact of an artificial tree is better than a real tree if you’ve used the fake tree for at least five years.

“Artificial trees were looked at [in the study] “For factors like manufacturing and offshoring,” ACTA executive director Jamie Warner told CNN. “Planting, fertilizing and irrigation were taken into account for real trees, which have an approximate field planting period of seven to eight years.”

What are the benefits of real trees?

Ground crews cut down Christmas trees and pack them onto trucks at the Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Salem, Oregon, in 2020. Noble Mountain is one of the largest Christmas tree farms in the world, harvesting about 500,000 trees per season.
On average, it takes seven years to fully plant a Christmas tree, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. As it grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. Protecting forests and planting trees can help stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis by removing warming gases from the atmosphere.

If trees are cut down or burned, they can release the carbon they were storing back into the atmosphere. But Doug Hundley, a spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, which advocates for real trees, says cutting Christmas trees off a farm is a balancing act when growers immediately plant more seedlings to replace.

“When we harvest or chop down trees, we plant again very quickly,” Hundley said.

If the idea of ​​wandering the woods to find the perfect tree is intriguing, you can purchase a permit from the US Forest Service, which encourages people to cut their own tree instead of buying an artificial tree. According to, cutting down thinner trees in denser areas can improve forest health.
But Fenton doesn’t recommend dragging Clark Griswold and chopping down a huge tree to move it home—especially if it’s in an area you’re not allowed to. He recommends getting a tree from a local farm, instead.
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“For me, the benefit of going to a Christmas tree farm, which is different from cutting down a tree in the woods, is that it concentrates the clearing effect in one place,” he said. It places the responsibility on farmers to regenerate those trees. “

There is also an economic benefit from switching to nature, since most of the trees that people end up getting are planted on nearby farms. About 15,000 farms grow Christmas trees in the United States alone, and employ more than 100,000 people either full- or part-time in the industry, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

“What we do with our natural Christmas tree purchase is support local economies, local communities, local farmers and for me, that’s an essential part of the conservation equation,” Fenton said. “When a tree farmer can reap economic benefits from his land, he is less likely to sell it for development and less likely to convert it to other uses.”

get rid of issues

Municipal workers grind Christmas trees from last holiday season at a wood chipper at a community park in Warminster, Pennsylvania, in February 2019.
Trees pile up on curbs after the holidays are over, and the final destination in many locations is landfills, where they contribute to emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas about 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

“Real Christmas trees that end up in landfills is very frustrating,” Hundley said, adding that there should be “separate yard waste areas where Christmas trees can go.”

National forests let you cut down your own Christmas tree
But some towns and cities are repurposing trees to benefit the climate and the environment. In New York City, trees that are left on curbs during a certain period of time are picked up for recycling or composting. The city’s Department of Sanitation also hosts an initiative called MulchFest, where residents can bring in their trees to cut down for mulch and use to feed other trees around the city.

“When the homeowner has finished using the tree, it is very easy and common in America to chop the tree down to mulch — and the stored carbon is returned to the land,” Hundley added.

Fenton also says that former Christmas trees can be reused to restore habitat; They can help control erosion if placed along streams and river banks, and they can also help underwater habitats thrive if placed in rivers and lakes.

The end of life of an artificial tree varies a lot. They end up in landfills – where they can take hundreds of years to decompose – or incinerators, where they release dangerous chemicals.

bottom line

Given the pros and cons of a complex climate, real Christmas trees have preference. But if you choose to artificially decorate your halls, get a tree that you will love and reuse for many years.

Either way, Fenton said, people should feel good about their decision and find other ways to tackle the climate crisis.

“It’s a debate, but once you make a decision, you should feel good about your decision, because there are many other things we can do in our lives that have a greater impact on the climate – like reducing leadership or advocating for policies that expand renewable energy,” he said. Fenton. “Enjoy the holidays and focus on other aspects of your life to reduce the effects of climate change.”


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