We love this question, because it’s an example of a simple choice that anyone and everyone can make that can reduce our impacts on the environment.
We also love this question because, like many environmental issues, the answer isn’t as simple as you might think. Our #1 recommendation? Buy a real tree. Read on for more details on the impacts of both real and fake Christmas trees, and then make the choice that’s right for you. And check out our 12 Tree Tips for other earth-friendly holiday decoration tips.
Real Christmas Trees
In 2015, 26.9 million trees were purchased from live Christmas tree farms – more than twice the number of fake trees purchased (12 million).
There are more than 350K acres of family farms growing mini forests of Christmas trees in the U.S. – plus another 76K in Canada! That’s a lot of land kept busy absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere every year – a true natural climate solution. If you buy your tree from a “U-Pick” farm, of which 32% of you did in 2015, then know that each tree cut from a farm is typically replaced by 1-3 seedlings, which continue removing carbon from the air.
However, if you’re one of the other 68% who buys a real tree from a chain, local nonprofit, or other retail store or group, then make sure you know where those trees are from. Locally-harvested trees – just like locally-grown foods – are the best choice for the environment. Locally-harvested trees reduce the impacts on climate change (because they’re not traveling far) and reduce the likelihood that non-native species could hitch a ride in your tree and eventually invade a new habitat.
Once Christmas is over, the best way to dispose of it is with your local or city recycling program. These programs use trees in lots of fun ways- the tree itself can be used to help trap sand on beaches to prevent erosion, or can be sunk in ponds to provide habitat for fish and other wildlife, or it can simply be chipped and used again in its new form.
As a matter of scientific fact, the best way to dispose of Christmas trees are to chip them and then use those chips locally. Every year, the Trafalgar Square tree in London is donated from Norway, and then chipped and composted at the end of the season.
You might think letting your tree decompose in your own backyard would be a good option- but unfortunately that creates a risk of spreading damaging forest pests. Learn about better options for improving your backyard habitat at Habitat Network.
Check with your local municipality on proper tree recycling in your neighborhood. And if you live in London, here are proper suggestions for Christmas tree disposal!
Fake Christmas Trees and Their Impacts
We’ve shown the many benefits of real Christmas trees - so let’s dive into the downsides of fake trees.
80% of the fake trees sold in the U.S. are shipped here from China, and artificial trees contain non-biodegradable plastics and possible metal toxins such as lead.
Most of China’s electricity comes from burning coal—the dirtiest source of electricity. Once the fake trees are made, they still must be shipped across the ocean, creating more emissions.
If you move beyond the climate change implications of fake tree processing and shipping, there are other concerns. Strangely, invasive species can make their way into fake trees. A very damaging invasive is being found in shipments of artificial holiday trees. People have reported grubs in the wooden trunks of fake trees, and thus entire shipments are being burned.
Already own a fake tree because of allergies or expense?
There are a few good reasons that you might already own a fake tree. In some parts of the country, real trees are very expensive. And some people experience allergies to real trees’ pollen or even the very chemicals that make them smell so good to the rest of us (named terpenes).
If you already have a fake tree, store it carefully each year so it will last for as many Christmases as possible. Research suggests using a fake tree 10 times makes the carbon footprint even out to using real trees- so make those 10 Christmases with your fake tree the goal!
Looking for a Local Christmas Tree Farm?
The National Christmas Tree Association allows you to search by zip code. Or this site offers a listing by state and county. And perhaps an organic Christmas tree is best of all. Twenty-two states now have organic Christmas tree farms.