It’s was a tradition growing up that me and my family would go find the perfect Christmas tree, wandering for hours in acres of pines trees. For some, Christmas trees are better when they come out of a box, and are easily reusable for years to come.
This year, however, I began to wonder what this seemingly harmless and fun tradition could be doing to the environment. Is it worse than that of a artificial tree or do they too have downsides?
Christmas trees are planted to be cut.
Like wheat or soy, these trees are purposely planted with the intention of being sold. The upside is that cutting these farmed trees does not impede on any natural areas*.
*If you plan on finding your Christmas tree in a park or forest, you might want to look at these guidelines from the U.S. Forest Service, which also requires you obtain a permit.
These trees typically grow for around a decade and create habitat for wildlife, as well as uptake carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
When disposed of properly (not in a landfill), they are biodegradable and can be integrated back into the natural environment. While recycling methods differ by city, some areas have specific dates in which trees are picked up to be remade into mulch. The Home Depot will recycle trees and possibly use them to make aquatic habitats or prevent erosion.
Artificial trees use many materials.
Artificial trees are primarily assembled in China and are made with the byproducts of petroleum (aka PVC), steel, and copper. These materials cannot be easily reused, and when expired, typically go in the trash.
These trees may take up to 500 years to breakdown in a landfill. Leaching of toxic chemicals into the groundwater is always a possibility.
According to Piotr Skubała, Associate Professor at the Ecology Department of the Faculty of Biology and Environmental Protection of the University of Silesia, construction of artificial trees produces 8.1 kg of greenhouse gases (GHGs). While real trees produce about 3.1 kg of GHGs a year, they also have benefits on the surrounding environment.
If you plan on reusing, artificial wins.
Although artificial trees do use a hefty amount of non-biodegradable materials, they also can be reused year after year. Artificial trees tend to last around 10 years, which is about the amount of time needed to outweigh the benefits of a real tree.
In those ten years, one artificial tree seems the better option when compared to the ten real trees that would need to be bought – each of the real trees would require around a decade to grow, a large amount of water, and pesticide usage.
Opting for an artificial tree without lights attached is a better option when it comes to disposal — the Home Depot will recycle old strands of lights to reuse in new electronics.
*Did you know: Customers of The Home Depot have recycled more than 2 1/2 million holiday light strings since 2008 – that’s equal to nearly 69 million plastic water bottles.
Local is better.
Why? Driving a short distance, or using a green vehicle, to get a real tree is superior to the emissions resulting from transporting artificial trees from China to locations across the United States. Besides this factor, buying from a nearby tree farm keeps money circulating in the local economy, benefitting families and small businesses.
Christmas consumerism and convenience is the issue.
Overall, the effects of buying Christmas trees are the tip of the iceberg. Wastefulness during the holiday season is higher than most of the year. The transportation necessary to ship packages or receive items from online companies is intensive. Trash accumulated from packaging, wrapping paper, food, and convenience items is immense. While Christmas trees have a small effect on the waste stream and emissions, the more relevant topic to investigate is the ever increasing consumerism in developed countries.
All information was taken from memory, education, or from external sources listed in the article or below. Additional sources may have been listed for further research.