Real Christmas Trees Are More Eco-Friendly Than Fake Ones

By Simon Griffin on Sunday, December 22, 2013
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“There’s no experience quite like cutting your own live Christmas tree out of your neighbor’s yard.” —Dan Florence

In A Nutshell

In recent times, many people have been switching from real Christmas trees to fake ones in an effort to be more environmentally friendly. But contrary to popular belief, fake trees are usually worse for the environment, and it could take over 20 years of use for the ecological costs to balance out.

The Whole Bushel

More and more these days, people are trying to find eco-friendly alternatives for nearly everything. Killing a tree so you can display it in your house for a few weeks can easily be construed as an environmental pandemic, so people think that by switching to fake trees, they’re helping by saving a tree every year. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

A study conducted by Canadian sustainable development company Ellipsos found that fake trees produce two-thirds more carbon emissions than real trees thanks to manufacturing and transport (with 80 percent sold worldwide coming from China). Furthermore, their manufacturing and proper disposal can be carcinogenic, if disposed of properly at all.

While this study was specific to Montreal, another study conducted by the American Christmas Tree Association found that a fake tree would need to be used for at least 10 years to make it a more viable alternative in terms of carbon emissions alone, but that the average life of an artificial tree is only six years. They also found that 80 percent of the 79 million households that display trees use artificial ones, and those people are also likely to display multiple trees. This means that most people in the US are buying fake trees to be greener, but failing to keep them long enough to achieve this. And by buying more than one, they’re being even more wasteful. Given that the American Christmas Tree Association is an artificial-tree trading group whose main angle is eco-friendliness, we can safely bet that if their studies say real trees are more eco-friendly, they’re telling the truth. If anything, they’re most likely still making the fake trees out to be better than reality, as that’s in their best business interests.

Apart from the obvious downsides fake trees have with regards to manufacturing and shipping, there are a lot of benefits to growing real trees that can’t be replicated by any artificial trees. Cleaner air is pretty obvious, so we’ll just get that one out of the way. Real Christmas trees are grown specifically for the purpose of being cut down, so by buying a fake one, you’re not “saving a tree’s life,” you’re just cutting the demand for real trees and thus the amount of real trees that will be planted in the future. Further, you’re replacing something that cuts carbon emissions with something that increases them. There are currently about 400 million Christmas trees growing on 350,000 acres of land in the United States alone, and if we didn’t use them to celebrate Christmas, those numbers would probably be zero. That’s almost half a billion trees that exist in the US thanks to Christmas, a number that has been growing as the population increases. Last year, 24.5 million real trees were sold in the US, while 46 million were planted (50–75 percent of these will survive), meaning the demand for real trees is only increasing the environmental benefits. Apart from creating cleaner air, these tree farms offer a habitat to many wild animals. It’s also important to remember here that these habitats don’t vanish every year. It can take up to a decade to grow one of these trees, so it’s not a very disruptive process.

Another factor to take into account is that the soil required to grow the trees doesn’t need to be as high quality as the soil required for other crops, meaning that we can use land that may not be used for farming otherwise, or would have to be transformed first. Then there’s the fact that they require a lot less care. Compared to other farms, tree farms don’t require anywhere near as much attention, machinery, or pesticides, and can get on pretty fine by themselves for most of the year. This allows many farmers to have a great source of income that isn’t labor intensive. Disposal is also cleaner. While artificial trees will either be incinerated or thrown in a dump, real trees can be turned into compost or recycled in other ways. Ninety-three percent of real trees are recycled, whereas almost all fake trees are impossible to recycle. As stated earlier, only 20 percent of displayed trees are real. If fake trees weren’t used at all, that could equate to two billion real trees planted in the US. Obviously things might not work out that neatly in reality, or problems could arise with so many tree farms, but for the majority of people, real trees are definitely the greener choice.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: How Green Is Your Real (or Fake) Christmas Tree?
Christmas Tree Facts: University of Illinois Extension
American Christmas Tree Association: American Households and Christmas