The real-versus-fake Christmas tree debate has raged for years. Fresh trees smell great but can also be messy; artificial trees are less of a hassle but also need year-round storage space. But there’s another, bigger consideration: Which type of tree is the more sustainable option?
To get to the core of the issue, we spoke with Megan Quinn, coordinator of conservation biology at the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and Lienna Hoeg, Christmas tree specialist at Perennia in Nova Scotia.
The pros and cons of an artificial Christmas tree
“Reusing the same artificial Christmas tree year after year sounds more sustainable,” Quinn says. “But it’s important to consider the climate impact of manufacturing and shipping plastic trees around the world.”
The artificial tree industry, it turns out, is a large one. Statistics Canada reports that in 2017, the total value of artificial trees imported to Canada was $60.8 million, with 97 percent of those trees coming from China.
“Most fake trees are made with polyvinyl chloride, which is one of the worst plastics we can produce,” Hoeg says. “There are emissions coming off through production, shipping, getting them to the stores, bringing them home—there are huge carbon footprints associated with this.”
And then there’s what happens to your fake tree when you’re done with it. “Artificial trees are made with plastic and metal and you can’t recycle them,” Hoeg notes. Instead, they typically end up in a landfill, where they can take hundreds of years to break down.
A comparative life cycle assessment study of artificial versus natural trees published in 2009 by Ellipsos, a Montreal-based sustainable development consulting firm, reported that total carbon dioxide emitted during the life cycle of an artificial tree is 8.1-kg CO2 per year, or 48.3-kg for its entire lifespan, which they measured at six years. In comparison, a real tree clocked in at 3.1-kg CO2 for its one-year lifespan (so if you purchased a real tree six years in a row, the total CO2 would be 18.6-kg).
One factor that has a significant impact is how many years you’re able to re-use your artificial tree. “If you’re doing that over decades, then you’re reducing the impact that tree has,” Quinn says. “The fake Christmas tree in my family belonged to my late grandma and she was gifted it when she was young, so it’s celebrating its 102nd birthday this year. I can safely say that the tree has outlived its carbon footprint many times over.”
Quinn’s artificial tree is the exception though. Artificial trees last an estimated six to 10 years, but Hoeg says their lifespan depends on the quality of the tree, along with factors like how well you take care of it (keeping it out of sunlight; properly cleaning and storing it) and whether it comes outfitted with lights (which may eventually stop working). Overall, the longer you use your fake tree, the better—the Ellipsos study notes that to minimize the impact of an artificial tree, you’d need to use it for 20 years or more.
The pros and cons of a real Christmas tree
“When you go to a Christmas tree farm, it’s taken many years for that tree to grow big enough to be harvested, and as that tree grows, it provides benefits to people and nature,” Quinn says.
Some of these benefits include absorbing carbon and providing oxygen. Just how much carbon a Christmas tree actually absorbs depends on a number of factors like the soil type, the type of tree and its age. It’s estimated that one acre of Christmas trees generates enough daily oxygen for 18 people, along with providing habitat for birds and small animals.
Part of what makes a real tree a sustainable option is also related to how the tree farm itself is operated. “There are many Christmas tree farms that have programs where for every tree that’s cut down, they’ll plant two or three more trees to replace it. So overall you have a net benefit of Christmas trees,” Quinn says.
Hoeg—who, as part of her job, regularly works with Nova Scotia tree growers—also notes that many growers tag the trees they plan to cut down each year, which contributes to the sustainability of the industry. “The amount of trees that are cut each year is always predetermined, give or take a few,” she says.
It’s also worth noting that buying a real Christmas tree from a business near you supports the local economy. There are approximately 1,872 Christmas tree farms in operation across the country, mainly located in Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of real Christmas trees is the fact that they’re biodegradable, so at the end of their lifecycle they do not contribute to landfill pollution—if you dispose of them properly, that is (more on this below).
But just like artificial trees, there is one factor that makes a big difference in how sustainable a real tree is: how far you travel to get your tree. In the Ellipsos study’s CO2 calculation for real versus artificial trees, consumers travelled approximately five kilometres to purchase their trees. The longer the distance that you’re driving to pick up a real tree, the greater the overall emissions are going to be. The same can be said for real trees that are sold at a retail location close to you, but that were grown hundreds of kilometres away.
“The less distance the tree has to travel, the lower its carbon footprint,” Quinn said. “If [real] trees are being shipped large distances, the transportation emissions can mitigate any real difference between having a real or a fake tree. So the more local you can be—if that’s an option for you—the better.”
How do I dispose of an artificial tree?
As noted, artificial trees cannot be recycled and often end up in landfills. “Take as best care of your artificial tree as you can, to make it last as long as possible,” Hoeg said. “If it’s still in good enough condition, consider donating it.”
How do I dispose of a real tree?
Real trees are biodegradable, and there are several options for how to dispose of them properly.
Some municipalities allow real trees to be composted through their composting or yard waste programs. Municipalities may also have dedicated spots to drop off your real tree, or offer curbside collection. “A lot of local municipalities have programs where they collect [the undecorated tree] and then they’re able to turn it into mulch or compost,” Quinn says.
If you do have the outdoor space for it—and if it’s allowed as per your local bylaws—you can also repurpose your tree in your backyard to provide habitat for birds and small animals. “This provides great winter cover and habitat for species that depend on it,” Quinn said. “Then as it decomposes, it gives benefits back to the soil—it decomposes on your property similar to how a tree in the forest would.”
There are also many organizations across Canada that repurpose real Christmas trees for various types of restoration projects. For example, Trout Unlimited Canada collects trees annually for Ontario stream rehabilitation projects, Credit Valley Conservation in Alton, Ont. collects trees for restoration projects in the Credit River Watershed, and wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organization WILDNorth in Alberta accepts Christmas trees, which are then used in their wildlife enclosures. If you want to give your tree a second life, check with local organizations near you to see if any similar programs are offered.
Disposing of your tree properly—whether real or artificial—is important. Hoeg and Quinn note they have seen both types of trees simply dumped in the forest. An artificial tree will never break down in the woods, and even a natural tree could disturb the ecosystem.
The final word on real versus artificial Christmas trees
If you can make use of an artificial tree for several years—20 or more, to be exact—that will bring down the tree’s environmental footprint. “Just remember that these trees can’t be recycled,” says Hoeg. “So they will end up in a landfill at the end of their lifetime.”
On the other hand, while real trees provide environmental benefits as they grow and are biodegradable at the end of their life, how far you travel to get the tree can make a difference. If you plan on getting a real tree, try to purchase one from a local tree farm.
Either way, Quinn notes that the answer to this question is complicated.
“There are many reasons why someone might choose to have a real or fake tree as part of their holiday tradition,” she says. “We want to make sure we aren’t shaming anyone for the choices they make and that they have the information [they need] to help them out.”