Is a natural Christmas Tree actually better for the environment than an artificial one? If going natural, what should you look for in a tree and what can you do with it once the holidays are over?
I am sitting next to the fire on a cold winter morning, enjoying my Christmas tree for the last few days of the holiday season. I am wondering if I am being environmentally responsible by having a natural tree. Isn’t natural almost always better than artificial, or should I buy an artificial tree that will last for years and just burn a holiday candle that smells like a pine forest instead?
I grew up with an artificial tree and there was no magic nor fragrance. I just remember how tired it was after many decades of use. I was so happy to eventually get rid of it, and I have never turned back. On the other hand, I was visiting with a woman at a holiday party, who told me she was so upset when she saw a natural Christmas trees in someone’s home. I was surprised by her statement, and I asked her to explain. She told me she was distressed at the thought of cutting trees out of the forests, which I couldn’t have agreed with her more. However, fortunately natural Christmas trees are now cultivated in the United States just like other crops such as flowers, fruits and vegetables. This conversation made me think even further about people’s decisions in choosing a natural versus an artificial tree. Let’s look at some of the facts I found during my research.
Depending on the source it takes anywhere from six to twenty years of using an artificial tree to have a comparable carbon footprint to purchasing a live Christmas tree each year.
Artificial trees are made with steel, aluminum, and the petroleum-derived plastic, PVC. Let’s not forget the cardboard for packaging and all the resources needed for shipping the tree from China, where approximately 85% of artificial trees in the United States are manufactured. You use and enjoy your tree for a number of years and decide you no longer want it. It can be donated to a charitable organization, but ultimately it will end up in the landfill since they are nonbiodegradable and nonrecyclable.
According to the NCTA (National Christmas Tree Association), the Christmas tree farming industry employs approximately 100,000 people in the United States. Additionally, a natural Christmas tree uses a bit less water than fruit trees while it is growing and at the same time is removing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it back into oxygen. One farmed Christmas tree absorbs more than 1 ton of CO2 throughout its lifetime, and each acre of trees produces enough oxygen for the daily needs of 18 people. With approximately 350 million real Christmas trees commercially grown in the U.S., you can quickly see the yearly amount of carbon sequestering associated with the trees.
One of the main factors in shifting the environmental balance between a live and artificial tree is how far the tree must travel to its final destination. If you live in a place where coniferous trees do not grow and are far from where your tree is raised, it may have to travel hundreds if not thousands of miles on a diesel truck to reach you. This distance has a significant environmental impact. However, a tree trucked within the United States still travels thousands of miles less than one manufactured overseas.
Once your holidays are over what do you do with your tree? If you have chosen the artificial route, you just pack it up and put it in storage. Hopefully you have an attic or basement. But don’t many of us want to live simpler lives with less things to take care of? If you have chosen a live tree, you have an important decision to make now. Please do not let this natural and renewable resource end up in a landfill, where decomposition rates are slow due to lack of oxygen. Most cities will collect natural Christmas trees for recycling into mulch and compost. Conservation groups in Louisiana use Christmas trees to bolster coastal wetlands that have been eroded by hurricanes. Let your imagination run wild!
Even though natural trees might shed needles on your floor, the purchase of U.S. grown products, the carbon-neutral nature of their production, and their ease of recycling make them a clear winner.
In order to make your natural tree last as long as possible, use this Christmas Tree Preservative -- our trees usually last well into January thanks to this trick! When it's time to take your natural tree down, here are some great options:
If you want to take it to the next environmental level, buy a tree in a pot, that can be planted outside after the holidays.
Take the tree to be mulched.
If you have some area in your yard, you can put your tree outside to provide shelter for birds and other wildlife.
When I first moved to a remote ranch in Mexico in the late 1980’s, it was very difficult to find cultivated Christmas trees. I did not want to buy an artificial tree, so I decided to use an agave plant. It was fun and whimsical and we enjoyed it for a few years. Below are some options I found on the internet in case you are inspired to do something besides and artificial or natural tree.