The Christmas tree: a definitive piece of decor that is absolutely necessary for the long-awaited holiday season. Most children have early memories of picking out a beloved Christmas tree with their family at a tree farm, or just pulling down the artificial tree from the attic and spending an entire night in early December decking out the tree with lights, ornaments and candy canes. But how is your favorite Christmas decoration affecting the environment?
After a very intense office discussion regarding the benefits of buying a real, fresh-cut Christmas tree every year vs. owning an artificial one for 10+ years, we decided to dig a little deeper to discover what decision is actually better for the environment.
The short answer might surprise you: Ultimately, owning a real tree during the holiday season is the better option as far as the ecosystem is concerned in the long run. However, it’s a bit more complex than just this statement.
It all really depends on how far you drive for your tree, how you dispose of it after the holiday season and if you do decide on an artificial tree, how long you plan to keep it.
We broke down some Christmas tree facts for you to help with your decision:
Lead is a key ingredient in artificial trees.
Lead is a key ingredient often used when crafting the needles for an artificial tree, which can be very harmful as far as your health is concerned. Touching the tree can be unsafe, especially with your face. Vacuuming around the tree can also be a health risk because it can spread lead particles into the air, which can be extremely hazardous to your immune system if you breathe them in.
According to The New York Times, “The annual carbon emissions associated with using a real tree every year were just one-third of those created by an artificial tree over a typical six-year lifespan. Most fake trees also contain polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which produces carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal.” Yeah, no thanks.
Reusing your tree doesn’t even out the toll.
In order to match the energy used to create and transport the fake trees, you would need to reuse the tree for almost 20 years. That’s a lot of climbing in and out of the attic.
Artificial tree-lovers will argue that driving to pick up your real Christmas tree can also be harmful to the environment. However, it’s much easier to drive less by buying local. By buying from a local tree farm, you can also support your community and preserve local farmland.
Real trees get recycled.
Each year, 33 to 36 million Christmas trees are produced in America. While many think that cutting this many trees is a big problem, these trees are typically grown as a crop and replanted in rotation after cutting, providing suitable habitat for wildlife. In fact, Christmas trees are actually harvested for this specific purpose.
Fun fact: In the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt, an avowed environmentalist, actually banned Christmas trees in the White House because cutting down trees went against his conservation efforts. He feared that Christmas trees would lead to deforestation.
This was before the popularity of “Christmas tree farms” came about in the ‘40s, whereas before, most people harvested their trees from nearby forests. In today’s world, no more than 2 percent of trees are chopped in the wild. Most of them are grown on farms and harvested specifically for sale during the holidays.
Real trees are expensive.
As far as a real tree is concerned, the main drawback for most people is the fact that they are expensive, only usable for a short period of time and then just thrown away. But these trees are biodegradable and highly recyclable. In fact, after the holidays, real trees can continue to serve a purpose. New York City specifically offers free curbside recycling for trees, which are then turned into compost. Other states have begun adopting this process as well.
In short, recycle your trees! If you’re feeling crafty, you could even make a fun DIY project with your used tree, using the branches and the trunk. You can also make balsam scented potpourri as well.
Animals live in Christmas trees.
Christmas tree farms, home to about 350 million trees, serve as habitats for local wildlife. And to the many people who are afraid of deforestation like President Teddy Roosevelt, for every real tree harvested, one to three new ones are planted in its place.
The bottom line: Both natural and fake trees have an environmental impact, but it seems as though the verdict for the health of the Earth—and your family—is owning a real tree. But it truly goes either way. If you want to own a real tree this Christmas, make sure you recycle or compost when the season is over. And if you’re still on team artificial, try to keep your tree around for a while—a long while.