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Which Is More Sustainable: Live Vs. Artificial Christmas Trees?

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

In my household, a common debate has been held every holiday season: Is an artificial or real Christmas tree more sustainable? Turns out, statistics prove the answer as the latter. Though both options bear their individual environmental consequences, purchasing a real tree this winter will substantially reduce your holiday carbon footprint. Nevertheless, within each choice is a distinct set of steps to make your preferred tree as eco-friendly as possible.

What are the environmental impacts of an artificial tree?

Every year, an average-sized artificial tree emits 8 kilograms of carbon dioxide, the equivalent to a single car driving 200 miles. In contrast, a real tree only emits 3.1 kilograms, estimating about 77 miles. The factor in this is obvious, as it is most often described in the name of artificial trees - they’re made of plastic, a notorious environmental enemy. Artificial trees are typically composed of steel and a synthetic plastic called PVC, or Polyvinyl chloride, that is infamous for its near inability to be recycled. The oil alone used in the manufacturing process of the tree produces ⅔ of the carbon footprint. As China fabricates the majority of artificial trees, they are then shipped long distances to stores, where they are eventually shipped or driven to homes. This procedure leads to an entire quarter of the carbon emissions released from the trees. Though such trees are intended to be reusable, families habitually discard what has become worn due to continuous use, and the same goes for artificial trees. Furthermore, the trees end up in landfills where they will remain until the end of time due to their PVC parts.

Why are real Christmas trees more sustainable?

With 79% of the annual harvest originating from Oregon and North Carolina, live Christmas Trees

are a renewable resource grown explicitly on a total of 15,000 tree farms in the US, with none exceeding more than 10 acres. Christmas trees were intended to be grown and sold for the purpose of providing families with a feel of the Christmas spirit within their homes. For every tree that is cut down, at least one new tree is planted, as the average-sized tree requires a minimum of a decade to grow. On their own, trees sustain immense environmental benefits. Ranging from improving air quality through releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, storing carbon, and providing a habitat for wildlife, trees supply hope for an environmentally supported future. The most beneficial impact of the live Christmas tree in comparison to the artificial is that they are, as expected, biodegradable. When a Christmas tree is recycled, the remnants are often converted into mulch. The mulched trees then become soil where new plants are grown. Every year in New York City, the Mulchfest collects thousands of trees to be used in mulch for public parks, whether to enrich soil or even prevent erosion. Evidently, the purchase of a Christmas tree, when discarded correctly, ushers further sustainability. In addition, choosing the live option supports your local economy and tree farmers whose livelihoods depend on the holiday season. However, as most Christmas trees still possess a downside through farmers’ use of fertilizer and pesticides. Nevertheless, the negative impacts created are dependent on the grower and minimal in comparison to the greater benefits. The best option for your family this Christmas is a locally grown and recycled live tree.

However, as prices heighten year to year, this is not available for everyone. In hopes of maintaining a low carbon footprint, it is recommended that keeping an artificial tree long enough creates a potential for it to outweigh the sustainability of a real tree. Another key piece of eco-friendly advice is to keep driving to a minimum when buying your tree, whether live or fake. In conclusion, various factors affect the carbon footprint of your chosen tree regardless of which kind, including how far you travel, whether you recycle or throw it in the trash, and how long you reuse it. Happy tree shopping!

Note: If you are purchasing a live tree, here is a resource for recycling in the Bay Area!


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