Eco-Friendly Christmas Tree: Fake or Real?

It seems Christmas and the holiday season are quickly approaching (two more weeks!) and people are starting to go Christmas tree shopping. If you’re a bit environmentally-conscious, you may have caught yourself wondering which is the greener solution: real tree or fake tree.

When it comes to a holiday tree, you have 5 options:

  1. No tree
  2. Pineapple
  3. Fake tree
  4. Real (cut) tree
  5. Real (potted) tree

No Tree

If you don’t care for a tree, don’t get a tree. Don’t let the marketing hype make you think you need a tree to be festive or have a wonderful Christmas and holiday season. Real trees get messy and fake trees are… fake.

Pineapple

For a low maintenance “tree”, or if you’re looking to keep “on trend”, decorate a pineapple – I hear it’s all the rage this year.

Fake Tree vs. Real (cut) Tree

Environmental considerations aside, there are pros and cons for both a real and fake tree. A real tree is aesthetically beautiful and exudes an amazing holiday-pine scent throughout your house. A fake tree is handy because you get to have a nice-looking tree without having to deal with the subsequent mess of pine needles and sap. Essentially, I think most people prefer the look of a real and feel of a real tree, but those who want a cheaper, more convenient, or less messy alternative will go for the fake ones.

Now it’s time to focus on the environmental considerations!

The process to get a real (cut) tree to your home for Christmas follows this general process:

  1. Seedling grows into a baby tree in a nursery (in 4 years)
  2. Baby tree is moved outdoors and grows into a full-size tree of approximately 7 feet (in 11 years)
  3. Tree is cut from the Christmas tree farm and shipped to your city in a big truck
  4. You find this tree, declare it is “perfect” and bring it home
  5. Beautiful Christmas tree in your house (4 weeks)
  6. Recycling of tree into compost (if available in your city); otherwise, to the landfills

The process to get a fake tree to your home for Christmas follows this general process:

  1. Manufacturing of PVC needles and steel frame, typically from China
  2. Transport by ship to major port, then transport by train and/or truck to your city
  3. You go fake tree shopping at a store, spot this nice tree, and bring it home
  4. Festive Christmas tree in your house (12 weeks)
  5. Disassemble the tree & put in storage
  6. Re-use and repeat, for an average of 6 years (the average time an artificial tree is kept in North America)

In a discussion about the environmental impact of real vs. fake trees, there are 4 primary issues:

  • COimpact
  • Reusability
  • Deforestation
  • Disposal

CO2 Impact

In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, the manufacturing and oversees transportation of a fake tree emits approximately 48 kg of CO2 over it’s life. Assuming a 6 year life (as indicated above), this is approximately 8 kg per year. A real tree emits 3 kg, the largest portion relating to the transportation of the tree from farm to your house. For comparison purposes, driving 125 km in a standard-sized car emits around 3kg of CO2. A real tree will also sequester COduring it’s 15 year growth period.

Some real tree opponents bring up the point that if a real tree is not cut down, it can continue to benefit the ecosystem. However, we need to think about the source of these trees. The majority of Christmas trees come from Christmas tree farms – these trees are grown like crops whereby for every tree that’s cut, farmers usually replant 4 others, to maximize the chances for future tree sales. During this long growth phase, the trees “provide a natural habitat for wildlife like birds, help preserve open spaces, and contribute to the local economy”, says Clint Springer, a botanist and professor of biology at Saint Joseph’s University.

Reusability

Based on a 2009 study by the sustainable development consulting company, Ellipsos, it would take 20 years before the fake tree would be superiority to a real tree because of it’s reusability, relating to the issue of climate change.

For those who also have a tendency to move residences, a giant fake Christmas tree often times won’t make be included in the moving list. Having moved from the East Coast to the West Coast to Western Europe in the last 6 years, I know a fake Christmas tree would not have made the cut on either of my moves!

Deforestation

As mentioned before, deforestation is not an applicable issue as most Christmas trees come from farms dedicated to growing Christmas trees. These farms often occupy areas where it is difficult to use the land for other activities (i.e. under electrical lines). Given the option to have farmers plant additional Christmas trees where the land is not being used for other activities seems beneficial to me. In the outskirts of a major city, it also keeps additional greenery by providing land owners with a way to make a profit on their land instead of having to sell to developers to expand the concrete jungle of the cities.

Disposal

The disposal of your tree is probably the trickiest topic to tackle. In regards to a fake tree, you can delay this issue for as long as you keep reusing your tree. However, because of the materials that fake trees are made from (plastics and metals), they often cannot be recycled, and once the life of your fake tree is over, it will be going to the landfills.

Disposal of your real tree is also tricky. Some cities provide Christmas tree recycling services whereby they pick up your tree and compost it or turn it into mulch. If you know how to do this yourself, that’s even more perfect – plus you can teach a friend who doesn’t know. If your city does not provide this service and you cannot / do not want to pay for a private service to do this, you should know that the dead real tree you bring curbside will be making its trip to the landfills.

Real (potted) Tree

One final alternative, and to prevent or ward off the final landfill fate of real (cut) trees, is to not have them cut at all but still have your tree. The idea is that you have a Christmas tree growing in your yard. During the holiday season, you pot the tree temporarily so you can bring it into your home. Afterwards, you replant it back into your yard.

This idea sounds environmentally superior – the clear sustainable choice – but is not so clear cut when you look at its execution. According to a botanist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the execution problem stems from the fact that the holiday season does not align with the natural process of the tree. When you move a tree indoors during the winter and start watering it, you’re interrupting its dormancy period. Water starts flowing thru the tree’s roots and tissues, mimicking a Spring thaw. If you then plant it back outside in January, the cold will damage the tree’s tissues, causing sever dehydration. Unless you’re a true green thumb, the tree will usually not survive until Spring.

Verdict

Based on my research, it would appear that a real (cut) tree is the most environmentally friendly option if you want a Christmas tree as part of your holiday celebrations. However, if you do prefer a fake tree, the carbon footprint is not so much greater. The primary item you should think about is how you plan on disposing of your tree. Hopefully, you can figure out a way for it to avoid the landfills – even if it costs you a little bit more. I hope you find a way and I hope you have an amazing New Year.

The real versus fake Christmas tree seems to pop up every holiday season, you would've thought that it would be resolved by now. In fact, it should be resolved now because there is definitive evidence that one type of tree is superior to the other, backed by science! In case you don't want any tree, there are also some tree alternatives that you might like, including a pineapple tree!

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