When it comes to picking sustainable Christmas trees, here's why actual plants may beat plastic

Walking through a Christmas tree farm Getty Images/Cavan Images
Walking through a Christmas tree farm Getty Images/Cavan Images

It's that time of year again, when many Americans will visit their local tree lot to harvest a pine to install in their living room for a few weeks until it dies. Others will locate and extract a tree-shaped blob of plastic from storage. Whether plastic or organic, once adorned with ornaments, lights and tinsel, a Christmas tree is not only the focal point of Christmas morning, but of the holiday season.

But such trees can also become a source of stress as the realities of climate change become more acute and tangible. Many might wonder: is it really a good idea to buy a cut-down tree to hang out in my living room for a month while atmospheric CO2 rises at an unprecedented rate, wildfires burn stronger than before and sea level rise floods our coastal cities?

The answer might come as a surprise. Despite conventional thinking that cutting down trees is harmful (which oftentimes, yes, it is), some experts in the field say that, if you have to choose between an artificial Christmas tree and a farmed Christmas tree, the latter is likely better for the environment. But it’s not a straightforward answer, as what’s better ultimately depends on many variables.

Carbon Trust, a nonprofit environmental organization, states that in order for an artificial tree to be considered the “better option” it must be used over multiple years — somewhere between 7 and 20. The American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA) says five years. A third report from Canada stated that an artificial tree would actually need to have a life of 20 years to slow down climate impacts as low as those of a natural tree.

These results vary because they’re largely influenced by transportation times, which is a major factor in determining carbon footprint. For example, if you’re driving long distance to get a farmed tree, it might not be the best environmental choice. The carbon emissions released from driving might make the artificial tree the better option in the long-run, assuming it’s used for at least a few years. However, if you’re driving down the street to your local farm to get a real tree, it likely is the better option.

Jill Sidebottom, a horticulturist and spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association (N.C.T.A) told Salon via email that people can feel good for buying real Christmas trees for several reasons that favor the environment. First, she said Christmas tree farms help sustain wildlife.

“To me the biggest thing is that Christmas tree farms keep land from being developed,” she said, providing habitat for birds, rabbits and their predators. “I always saw more wildlife working in trees than I did hiking.”

Sidebottom said she believes real Christmas tree farms are good for local economies, which can help lower carbon footprints.

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“People coming into areas to cut their own Christmas trees may also visit restaurants or go shopping in nearby towns,” she said. “That’s a big boost to the economy and prolongs the tourist season.”

When it comes to real Christmas trees and their sustainability, it all boils down to buying and recycling locally. Most communities collect trees after Christmas and mulch them so they don’t end up in landfills. This also lowers the carbon footprint of real trees. Of course, it’s up to consumers to make sure they participate in these events.

There is also the issue of recyclability with artificial trees. If the artificial tree is made up of plastic and metals, it’s harder to recycle. Notably, most artificial trees are made up of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is known as an endocrine disrupting chemical. One study published in 2004 even found that there was a possible risk of lead exposure to young children in some artificial trees.

Chal Landgren, a retired Christmas tree specialist at Oregon State University, who also has a five-acre Christmas tree farm, told Salon on the phone that trees are carbon sequesters, meaning that they store carbon in new growth every year. In other words, it’s good for the environment to have more trees, and Christmas tree farmers are in the business of planting more trees. However, he emphasized that again, the effectiveness of Christmas trees being carbon sequesters largely depends on how far people are traveling to acquire their trees. The potential carbon that could be sucked by the trees could be mitigated by the carbon emissions released from driving to the farm.

That’s not to say that farmed Christmas trees are without toxins either. It’s likely that they’ve been sprayed with insecticides and pesticides as growers attempt to keep them appearing fresh. However, Landgren said that the pesticides would have been used at least five months ago.

“By Christmas time, those should be pretty much non-toxic,” he said. “Of the things to worry about, those would be pretty far down on the list, for both trees.”

Few consumers might realize there is a third, more sustainable option, and it’s once again a real Christmas plant — it just looks a little different. A living Christmas tree is a potted tree that someone can adopt for the holiday season. In some cases, consumers keep them and replant them themselves; in others, consumers rent them, often from urban forestry nonprofits, who then re-plant them outside after Christmas and re-integrate them into the urban canopy.

“I typically think about climate change with my research, and anything that slows the rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a positive thing in my mind,” Clint Springer, the director of Environmental Science and Sustainability Studies and associate professor at St. Joseph's University, previously told Salon. “And that’s a tree that lives a long and happy life, so a potted tree would be best.”