This article was first published in The Skeptical Inquirer
For those who put up Christmas trees, before questions such as “tinsel or ribbon?” and “angel or star?” can be answered, a much more fundamental query must be asked: real tree or artificial?
From an environmental standpoint, real trees seem like the obvious choice. Where artificial trees are made in factories from metals, plastics, and other manufactured materials, natural ones simply, well, grow from the ground. Where fake trees need to be disposed of in landfills (or potentially recycling plants if possible), real trees can be composted or burned. But it turns out the tree debate isn’t as cut and dried as it seems.
An extensive comparative life cycle assessment of an artificial versus a natural Christmas tree was done in 2010 by PE Americas for the American Christmas Tree Association. They examined quite a few environmental impact factors, including energy use, global warming potential, and acidification potential and a few end-of-life options for a real tree, including burning, landfilling, and composting. Their major conclusion? “The overall environmental impacts of both natural and artificial trees are extremely small when compared to other daily activities such as driving a car.”
Basically, no matter what kind of tree you get, the impact it has on the environment is nothing compared to everything else you do.
If you’re still determined to minimize your tree-based environmental impact, the report points out that for the majority of factors considered, “the artificial tree has less impact provided it is kept and reused for a minimum between 2 and 9 years.” So, if you do choose a fake tree, make sure it’s one you’ll like for a few years at least.
But above all, try to buy a tree close to home! The environmental effects of your trip to the tree lot, or Walmart, far outweigh the effects of the tree itself.