Environmental Impact of Natural vs. Artificial Christmas Trees

October 6, 2010

General Considerations

Many variables must be taken into account when determining the environmental impacts of natural and artificial trees. Natural trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere while growing, but often stress the environment with fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation, and soil depletion. Artificial trees are typically shipped a much greater distance (e.g. from China), and require significantly more natural resources, but can be reused for many years. How a tree is grown or manufactured, the distance it is shipped, the lifespan, and method of disposal, are all important factors when evaluating the pros and cons of each tree type.

Life Cycle Assessment of natural and artificial trees

Lifespan is Key

After reviewing numerous sources of information, the point stressed most often in comparing natural and artificial trees, is lifespan. Taken from an in-depth Life Cycle Assessment of natural and artificial trees, the graph above shows the point at which natural trees become more environmentally damaging than artificial trees; roughly 19 years. This means that if a consumer reuses their artificial tree for more than 19 years, their environmental impact will be less than if a natural tree were purchased every year.

Consumer Recommendations

Certain measures can be taken to lessen the environmental impacts of both natural and artificial trees once the consumer makes a choice about which type they will purchase. The lists below offer a few useful things the consumer should keep in mind when purchasing a tree.

For Natural Trees:

  • Buy from a local tree farm
  • Buy a potted tree that can be moved outdoors after the holiday season
  • Find an organic/all natural tree farm
  • Plant a tree sapling to replace the tree cut down, or buy from a tree farm with good replanting practices.

For Artificial Trees:

  • Buy as locally as possible, preferably from a US-based manufacturer
  • Search for a high-quality product, the added expense will be worth the extended lifespan
  • Reuse for the entire lifespan
  • Recycle as much as possible at the end of its lifespan

Closing Thoughts

There are many factors to consider when purchasing a tree for the holiday season. In general, natural Christmas trees are more environmentally sound than artificial trees. However, if the consumer purchases a durable artificial tree and uses it for the entire lifespan, the artificial tree becomes the more environmentally friendly decision. Regardless of the chosen type of tree, the impacts on the environment are very mild compared to other activities, such as driving a car.

You can also improve the overall environmental impact of your Christmas tree by decorating it with LED Christmas tree lights, and by utilizing a timer to make sure the tree is only consuming energy while you are home to enjoy it.