Real vs Artificial Christmas Trees: Which is Killing Us Faster?

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I have some very sad news to share with you today, friends: after 43 years of not being allergic to anything, I have finally developed the snots in apparent reaction to one particular plant: my Christmas tree. You have to understand that as someone who LOVES holidays, this is absolutely devastating. For years I have argued that as an atheist it is my right and my responsibility to celebrate a secular winter solstice/Festivus/unnamed December happy time, my very own body is rejecting Christmas.

I posted about this on social media, and I got an interesting reply:

“Why not a plastic tree? I never understood the allure of buying real trees that end up in the garbage bin on January 1st, but again this might be an american cultural thing”

I thought it was funny because it assumes that buying and eventually trashing a real tree is somehow wasteful, while buying a plastic tree is sustainable. I realize that this misconception may be widespread, so let’s talk about it!

First of all, let’s do away with one incorrect thing that I can’t imagine is widespread: that a real Christmas tree is an American thing. Christmas trees probably originated in Germany, were outlawed in the colonies by those stick-in-the-mud Puritans, and are now a pretty common tradition in the US, Canada, and most of Europe, though notably Catalonia has a way funnier custom involving a single log that is tenderly cared for for weeks before eventually it is beaten until it poops out candy.

Okay, on to the “real versus fake” discussion. Artificial trees have been around since at least the 1880s, because obviously not everyone has the time, energy, and ability to trek into a forest, chop down a tree, and drag it back to their apartment. Back then they were made of feathers, but as you may know from the Charlie Brown Christmas special, aluminum trees became popular in the late ‘50s up until the aforementioned special absolutely cooked them into oblivion by framing them as the symbol of the crass commercialization of a sacred religious rite.

Fun aside: when I was in my 20s, my mom bought me an official Charlie Brown Christmas Special tree, to which I said “isn’t this precisely the opposite of the message of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special?” To which she replied “shut up, nerd, try to have a little fun.” So.

Anyway, these days artificial trees (including the Official Charlie Brown tree) are made of PVC plastic, and most Americans choose that over a real tree. There are definitely benefits: they’re usually cheaper, especially if you reuse them for a few years; there are no needles to clean up; you don’t have to remember to water it; and they’re slightly less likely to catch on fire.

When these plastic trees started catching on the ‘70s, many people did think that they were more environmentally friendly, an idea that clearly persists today. After all, a lot of us grew up hearing horror stories about deforestation, so surely cutting down a tree just to decorate it for a month and then toss it must be environmentally devastating, right?

Wrong! This may surprise you to learn, but did you know that trees are so abundant it’s like they grow on trees? Wait. Bad metaphor. What I mean is that trees are, in fact, a renewable resource. PVC plastic is not. But it IS a little more complicated.

Let’s talk about the carbon footprint. Most of a plastic tree’s pollution occurs during manufacturing, because PVC is a pretty energy intensive material. But it’s also worth noting that 80 to 90% of all plastic trees come from China, meaning that there’s also an added transportation cost from the factory to a boat to your local Walmart to your home. A real tree has the opposite effect during its, er, “manufacturing.” Growing a tree CAPTURES carbon, storing it in the soil and in the tree’s cells. And when that tree is cut down (with a handsaw at my local tree farm), one to three more seedlings are usually planted. Each year, about 30 million trees are harvested for Christmas but 350-500 million trees are left growing on the farms, providing a habitat for wildlife and storing more carbon.

Of course, your Christmas tree will release some of that carbon when you dispose of it, and you also emit CO2 by traveling back and forth to get the tree. So how do the exact numbers shakt out? Every source with specific numbers that I can find references the British organization Carbon Trust, who say that a 2-meter tall artificial tree comes at a cost of 40kg of CO2. Compare that to a comparable real tree, which has only 16kg of CO2 if it ends up in a landfill, and only 3.5kg of CO2 if it’s mulched. So, compared to a real tree that is responsibly disposed of, you’d have to use an artificial tree for about 12 years before it becomes the more sustainable option. Other researchers have estimated the true break-even point would be closer to 20 years, but it’s worth noting that I’m pretty sure this study was sponsored by the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association, who obviously have some skin in the game.

The average family seems to use their artificial tree for six to ten years before replacing it. But even if you do manage to get 12 to 20 years out of yours, you wouldn’t be supporting your local managed forest, so if everyone went artificial, those farms would go out of business and the farms would be turned into Walmarts to sell more artificial trees, which would have their OWN carbon footprint, and…okay, we’re getting too into the weeds at this point (so to speak) so I’ll move on.

Overall, those are the reasons why most sustainability experts say that a real tree is better for the environment than a plastic tree. That said, if you already have a plastic tree, obviously the best thing to do is to NOT toss it in a landfill and replace it with a real tree next year. Just keep using it until it falls apart. You could also pick up a used plastic tree to give it a few more years of life – check your local Buy Nothing groups on Facebook or Craigslist. That’s how I responsibly disposed of my Charlie Brown Christmas tree: I gave it to someone who was excited to have it and did not have a gnawing guilt that the ghost of Charles Schultz would be haunting my Christmas display for years to come.

I’d like to end by pointing out that there is, of course, a third option I’ve yet to discuss: not displaying any tree in your home at Christmastime. To that I say: shut up nerd, try to have a little fun.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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