Are real or artificial Christmas trees better for the planet? It’s complicated.

Americans spend a lot of money on Christmas trees, both real and fake, but which option is ultimately better for mother earth? (Credit Getty Images and Caitlin Murray)
Americans spend a lot of money on Christmas trees, both real and fake. But which option is ultimately better for Mother Earth? It depends. (Credit Getty Images and Caitlin Murray)

In Unearthed, Yahoo Life discusses some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveals what you can do to help make a real difference.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how sustainable are your branches?

Actually, when it comes to parsing out which type of tree is best for the planet — real trees, which require lots of land, water and transport, or artificial trees, which are reusable but made from petroleum and definitely not biodegradable — the answer is not exactly clear.

“There is a lot of nuance,” Andy Finton, forest ecologist and landscape conservation director for the Nature Conservancy, tells Yahoo Life about the issue. And the most important part of the equation, he adds, comes after Christmas, as buyers decide how and when to dispose of their trees.

To understand the bigger picture, let’s start at the beginning.

Where real Christmas trees come from

“Very few Christmas trees are harvested from forests,” says Bert Cregg, a tree physiologist and professor of horticulture and forestry at Michigan State University. “Virtually all of them are harvested by family-owned farms where they’re grown for the purpose of selling them.”

At any given time, there are around 350 to 500 million trees growing on U.S. farms, with about 30 million harvested each year and 21.6 million sold (with the leftovers often turned to mulch) — a $984 million business in 2021, according to a report by Nielson and the American Christmas Tree Association, which promotes the Christmas tree industry. This year, tree prices are ranging from $50 to $200 depending on size and species.

(Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)
(Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

The tree farmers typically replace every chopped Christmas tree with two to three seedlings — each of which takes around 11 years to become full-grown and ready to harvest, per the ACTA. That makes real trees a “sustainable, renewable product," says Finton.

But trying to break down real trees’ overall carbon footprint — meaning the total amount of generated greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane is a bit more complicated.

For one, each real Christmas tree removes about five to 10 pounds of carbon from the atmosphere — the equivalent of about two gallons of gasoline — as it grows, which is a good thing. But the machinery and trucks required to chop and then transport the trees to markets and homes likely cancels out those positive contributions, providing a point of breaking even that’s hard to pinpoint.

One way around that is to opt for what might be the most sustainable option of all: a live or “living” Christmas tree — which, rather than being cut down, is sold with an intact ball of roots, allowing you to care for it in your home during the holiday season and then plant it in your yard when you’re ready to move it out of the living room.

“I like this idea a lot,” says Finton. “It is truly the best of all worlds — a real tree, with longterm climate and ecological benefits.”

Live Christmas tree leaning against the house.  (Getty Images)
Opting for a live Christmas tree, which is sold with a root ball so that you can plant it after the holidays, might just be the perfect solution to the sustainable-tree quandary. (Photo: Getty Images)

There are some drawbacks, though, namely that not everyone has a yard. It also requires vigilant watering while inside — because if it dries out and dies, Finton says, “it defeats the purpose.” It also takes some planning ahead — first, in choosing a spot that’s big enough to plant whatever fir variety you buy, and second, in remembering to dig the hole in November, before the ground freezes, if you live in a cold region of the country. “You can even put the plant in the hole in the pot, cover it with soil, and plant it in earnest (remove the pot) in the spring,” he suggests. “Or keep it in a shed or garage to prevent freezing the roots, but water it occasionally.”

But also, if you don't have a yard (or a green thumb), another option is to rent a living tree, which is yours to love and decorate until it gets picked up and returned to the nursery after Christmas.

Where artificial Christmas trees come from

"Artificial trees are usually made out of plastic, typically PVC plastic," Finton says, referring to polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, the world's third-most widely produced synthetic polymer of plastic with 40 million tons produced each year and, according to Greenpeace, "the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics."

And at least 90% of fake firs — 12.9 million of which were purchased by U.S. households in 2021, per the ACTA — are made in and shipped from China, he adds, noting, "From a climate standpoint alone, [a fake tree] takes forever [to create]. You're using fossil fuels to produce the plastic, manufacturing, the transportation, so there's a big carbon impact." (They could be cost saving, but with a big spend up front, as as faux trees can range from about $100 to well over $500.)

That being said, Finton points to studies that say keeping and reusing artificial trees for at least 20 years may be just as good as buying a real one every season, as “it would take that long for an artificial tree to balance the climate or carbon impact of using a real tree each holiday season.” Other data, like that collected from ACTA's 2018 Life Cycle Assessment report, offers a much lower offset time, saying artificial trees may even be better for the environment than real trees if they are kept longer than just five years.

Keeping it at least that long seems realistic to Mac Harman, founder and CEO of fake-tree company Balsam Hill, who cites research from the ACTA that says most customers are intentional with their decisions to purchase artificial trees — and that 26% plan on keeping them for at least five years, while 49% expect to keep them longer than 10.

VAN NUYS, CA - December 02, 2021: Trisha Williams of Burbank looks at a fake Christmas tree for sale at Aldek Home in Van Nuys.  The price of fake trees is 12 percent higher than a year ago due to the cost of shipping increasing 600 percent from a year ago. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A reported 49% of fake-tree owners expect to keep them longer than 10 years — which really helps offset the tree’s massive carbon footprint. (Photo: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“When people invest in [an artificial tree], they plan to use that tree for a long time,” Harman tells Yahoo Life. “And the average thing people do when they're done with their artificial tree is they give it to someone else, or they donate it to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. So, the trees actually end up staying in the useful life cycle [of 10 to 20 years].”

Balsam Hill is just one company — along with Ikea — that has expanded its product offerings to include trees made from polyethylene (PE), a less-toxic plastic, though still not exactly sustainable, than PVC. An even better option? Consider buying a used tree, either from a thrift shop or online.

Where real trees go when they die, and what it all means

The way in which you dispose of your tree may have the biggest impact of all when it comes to the environment. Aside from returning a living Christmas tree to the earth, either on your land or at the nursery it came from, many towns and cities now offer sustainable plans for cut trees, too, including curbside recycling programs, as is offered in New York City, which chips the trees and mixes them with leaves to create compost for its public parks and gardens.

Earth911 has a searchable database of Christmas tree recycling programs in local municipalities, some of which are able to capture the carbon that is released from trees after incineration and turn it into energy. Other creative programs use discarded trees to build sand dunes that prevent beachfront erosion.

Some creative Christmas-tree recycling programs use discarded firs to build sand dunes that prevent beachfront erosion. (Photo: Getty Images)
Some creative Christmas-tree recycling programs use discarded firs to build sand dunes that prevent beachfront erosion. (Photo: Getty Images)

For those living in rural areas without recycling initiatives in place, one option, Cregg says, is to let animals have at them. “There are people that have goat farms, and goats love trees,” he says. “You can even donate them to zoos. Certain animals love to chew on Christmas trees.”

Others have opted to drop their trees in nearby lakes, which creates a nice habitat for fish while also keeping carbon locked into the tree instead of released into the air, or scatter bits of a chopped-up tree on a forest floor to create “habitat piles” for critters to hide in. (Some cities have laws against these options, though, always check local laws ahead of time.)

What about when you get sick of your artificial tree?

As for fake trees, the best thing you can do is to sustain them for as long as you can. When and if you do decide to get rid of it, be sure to donate it to a friend, family member or your local Goodwill or other thrift shop.

Another option is to upcycle it by grabbing a strong pair of scissors, turning some of its metal branches into wreaths, napkin rings, centerpieces or garlands — all of which can be used again, year after year.

Any reusing option is better than the alternative — tossing your fake tree into the trash, where it will then be added to the near five billion pounds of landfill waste accumulated each holiday season. In fact, if all artificial trees were disposed of in U.S. landfills after every holiday season, according to a 2021 Statista report, it would release 520,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions — the equivalent of 1.3 billion miles driven by a passenger car.

So what's the bottom line?

Again, it’s not black and white — or even fully green. But the best option appears to be buying or renting a living Christmas tree.

Aside from that, while most experts say that buying real, cut trees is a better option for the environment, longterm, the answer largely depends on how people dispose of their trees, real or artificial.

All in all, Cregg explains, it’s important to take many elements into account when making your decision.

“We’re talking about the three pillars of sustainability: environmental (good for the planet), social (good for culture) and economic (good for our pocketbooks),” he says. “What we need to think about is what is the most sustainable in the longterm, and it has to be all those three things. It can't be just one — or it's not going to be sustainable.”

Or, as Finton puts it, whatever tree you choose this season, the most important thing is to make a conscious effort to limit your overall waste in the process — even if it means hauling your artificial tree in and out of a closet for 20 years.

"Christmas trees are one small piece of the puzzle," he says of humanity's effort to help the planet. "The decision can be really critical to the vitality of our local environment and our global environment, and directly benefit us in our future generations."

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