Real Christmas Trees Vs. Fake Christmas Trees // The Environmental Impact of Christmas Trees

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

Let’s start by addressing some of the big facts off the top: real trees take time, energy, and water to grow, but fake trees also take time, energy, and resources to make. Real trees are good for one season and fake trees can last a lifetime. So, which is truly better?


Let’s dive in!



I’d like to start by exploring real trees


Trees are great for the environment. A single tree can absorb over one ton of CO2 in its lifetime. In the US alone, over 350-500 million real Christmas trees are grown every year and the average tree is harvested after 10 years. This means that tree farms can absorb about 35 million tons of CO2 per year which is the equivalent produced to provide about 3 million Americans with power.


But, what happens when the trees get chopped down? The good news is, they will get planted again the next year. Since these farms only grow trees for the tree market, they will always be growing more and more. So, sure, they are a monoculture, but at least they continue to grow trees all year long and replace the ones that were cut. A monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area. I want to talk more about this in a future video, but in short, monocultures can be bad for the soil as nutrients will not be replenished. Pine trees always take the same nutrient from the soil which could lead to soil degradation.



Since these trees are grown specifically for the holidays, there is really no harm in cutting it down. People often think, myself included, that cutting down trees is bad, period. If people didn’t buy the trees, there would be no market meaning the farmers wouldn’t plant more trees to meet the demand. This means more trees planted and more help absorbing CO2 out of the air. As long as you aren’t chopping trees willy nilly in pre-existing forests and the farms are replacing the trees, you should be good! It has been proven that using our resources responsibly and carefully can be a great benefit to the resources and help protect forests! For every tree planted, farmers plant 1-3 seedlings.


You also don’t have to chop down a tree. You can get living ones and then plant it outside once the holidays are over! And, definitely get your trees local. You don’t have to cut it yourself, but find one grown in or near your city or at least your state to cut emissions even more.


Real trees do require a lot of water, though, in their early stages of life. But, most tree farms in the US are located in areas where water is not scarce. An extra eco-friendly step to take to is to opt for organic trees. You might not think this is important since you’re not eating it, but it does make a difference since spraying pesticides and herbicides can affect the environment and workers using them.



What do you do after the holidays?


Don’t throw your tree in the landfill! Like we learned in this video about bioplastics, natural and organic materials cannot be broken down in landfill and end up creating methane which is worse than CO2. Instead, dispose of it responsibly. If your city has a compost, use that. If you have an option to recycle it into mulch or wood chips, use that. Most cities have programs for holiday tree pick-up for things like this. Lastly, you can take care of it yourself and use the wood for arts and crafts or even just turn it into firewood. Burning, composting, or wood chipping it reduces it’s carbon footprint by up to 80%!



Now, let’s take a crack at fake trees


I had a fake tree growing up and my mom has used the same tree for 20+ years. That’s great, right? Yes, but ultimately, that tree will have to be disposed of one day and the only way to do that is the landfill. Since it’s mixed materials of mostly metal and plastic, it can’t be separated and recycled. But, you can reuse it for years and years and years instead of just a few weeks. I used to think it was better, too, but now, I’m not so sure, and here’s why.


It turns out, a 2-meter tall artificial tree has a carbon footprint of about 40kg of greenhouse gases mostly due to it being made of plastic which is just petroleum. That is nearly double the carbon footprint of a real tree. You would have to reuse your artificial tree at least 10 times (10 seasons) to keep the environmental impact lower than that of a real tree. So, my mom and her tree are already below that significantly having it for 20+ years. But, my fake tree is only four years old. I definitely plan on keeping it to max out it’s carbon footprint, but still, 10 years is a long time!


There was even a study done in 2017 that found that every year, six million trees are discarded...that number includes artificial trees. 14% of people interviewed said they opted for an artificial tree but will be throwing it out after just one use. So, it takes 10 years to balance the carbon footprint of a real vs fake tree....imagine getting a new fake tree every year?!


Like everything else these days, items aren’t made to last. The average family only keeps their tree for about 5-6 years. So, if you have one, take care of it well and make it last!



What are fake trees made of and where?


Artificial trees are made of polyvinyl chloride, a kind of plastic derived from petroleum and can contain lead or other harmful toxins. Not to mention, they are made in China which isn’t inherently bad, but most of their electricity is generated by burning coal which of course is one of the dirtiest sources of energy. Then, you have to factor in emissions into the carbon footprint as well. They are normally shipped in diesel-powered ships which is more emissions.



Which option is best?


I say, it depends on you. Are you unable to house a real tree and dispose of it responsibly but you can take care of a fake tree for decades? Opt for a fake tree! Do you have the space to care for a real tree and can dispose of it correctly? Opt for a real tree!


As we saw, real trees clearly outweigh fake ones. Real ones absorb CO2, return back to the earth, and create much less damage while artificial trees are made of oil, made using oil, and shipped using oil. Overall, they’re not great. If you have the means, go for the real tree. If you already have a fake one, use it until it is no longer usable. Take good care of it, store it well, and get the most out of it like my mom has and countless others. Please don’t treat them as single-use!


I got our tree four years ago right before we got married. I knew we’d be living the military lifestyle and didn’t know if we would have access to real trees. Turns out I was right since we can’t really harvest pine trees on our subtropical island. It works for us and I plan on using the crap out of it to maximize it’s life and then upcycling it if possible or giving it to someone else.


But, moving forward, I’d chose a real tree for the reasons listed above. So, take it as you will!



Thank you so much for reading along. I hope you found this helpful. If so, I hope you share this with others. I sure found some of the facts surprising as I thought fake trees were better as to preserve the living trees! I was certain cutting down trees was bad.


If you learned something, I would appreciate you sharing this or at least having a conversation with others.


As always, remember that the small changes you make have a big impact in the long run :)


Emma


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