12305335256?profile=RESIZE_710xWe’ve posted many articles on how to make Christmas greener, and these discussions invariably address the dilemma of choosing an artificial tree vs. a real tree. Whether you are religious, spiritual, or secular, the Christmas tree is a popular symbol of the holiday, and making the most environmental choice is a thoughtful decision. 

The Upside of Christmas Tree Farms Christmas trees are not naturally growing trees, and chopping them down is not akin to deforestation of old growth forests. Christmas tree farms are monoculture plantations that produce one or a few species of evergreen conifers such as fir, spruce, or pine trees on a ten-year rotation cycle. While they may not provide extensive ecosystem services like forests, Christmas tree farms can support bird biodiversity, bees, and other wildlife. Unlike monocultures such as sugar cane or palm oil that supplant forests, Christmas trees are often grown on barren, empty land that is unsuitable for other crops, such as steep hillsides. Unfortunately, these remote locations make them more inclined to use fertilizers, pesticides, and imported water. Christmas tree farmers will point out that for every tree harvested for sale, one to three new seedling plants are planted in its place. In this way, Christmas tree farms may be considered a renewable resource.

Christmas trees also capture carbon dioxide through their branches, needles, and roots. Over one year, one acre of Douglas fir trees can absorb as much as 11,300 pounds of carbon dioxide. They also produce oxygen. Every acre of Christmas tree farms meets the daily requirement of oxygen for 18 people.  These “greenbelts” provide habitat for birds, owls, ravens, deer, weasels, rabbits, fox, and coyote, and they protect the land from being used for more nefarious purposes

The Downside Of Christmas Tree Farms Like all agricultural sectors, Christmas tree farms have an environmental impact. To protect growing crops, Christmas tree farmers often use fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides (usually Round Up) to control growth that competes with seedlings and crowd walkways between rows of trees. Scientists consider these chemicals carcinogenic to humans and detrimental to land, wildlife, and water supplies, although some tree farmers maintain they use these chemicals sparingly and don't spray them directly on trees. Long after harvest, a sprayed tree will dry out inside your home, and pesticide residue can become part of the air and dust you breathe.

Apparently, it is difficult for Christmas tree farmers to make a profit while refraining from using pesticides altogether as well as maintain organic certification, so it is challenging to find an organic Christmas tree. If you are determined to find a pesticide-free tree and don’t mind leaving Contra Costa County, you can find some no-spray trees in Sonoma County HERE. Also, check THIS link for local organic Christmas trees in Walnut Creek and Pittsburg. 

Water Usage Christmas trees are plants that need water to grow until they are harvested. Just how much depends on where they are grown. Farmers in North Carolina can rely on natural rainfall, while farmers in California need to use drip irrigation. For comparison, Christmas tree plants require more water than vineyards but less water than fruit trees (and way less water than almond trees).

Transportation The majority of trees, about 79%, come from Oregon and North Carolina, while others hail from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  When trees are cut down and then transported great distances to stores via trucks or helicopters, the fuel produces greenhouse gas emissions.

What About Artificial Trees? Artificial trees leave a carbon footprint that includes the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride (PVC plastic), steel and aluminum, plus cardboard for packaging, and these generate gas emissions and other pollutants. Many artificial trees are shipped all the way from China, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, requiring additional fuel. On the plus side, fake tree advocates say the energy used to make one artificial tree is roughly equivalent to the energy needed to grow six real trees, so if you make a commitment to use your artificial tree for at least six to nine years, it appears to outrank real trees in saving energy.

The Importance of Christmas Tree Disposal The way a real or fake tree is disposed of after use is a much bigger environmental concern than where it was grown or manufactured or how you got it home. Fake trees are not recyclable or biodegradable when discarded. Even if they are used for many years and then eventually donated to Goodwill or nursing homes, their ultimate destination will still be landfill.

Sending your real Christmas tree to landfill leaves a considerable carbon footprint because during its decomposition it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than CO2. Real trees are completely biodegradable and can be used for lumber, turned into mulch and used by other flora and fauna, donated to restoration projects, composted and used to fertilize next year’s crop, fed to goats (check with your grower to ensure no chemicals were used), and more. HERE are more options for disposal. Check out this document from our local Republic Services on Christmas tree collection for compost. Just remember that flocked trees are not compostable. It also bears mentioning that if used trees are burned, they release carbon, as does decomposing mulch.

Other Options A potted trees is the most sustainable option if you keep it alive and breathing so it can continue to absorb CO2 and release oxygen, but you need to be committed to taking care of it and making sure it doesn't outgrow its pot. Keeping a potted tree that normally lives outside on your deck on a wheeled platform makes it easier to roll indoors for the holidays. You can even rent a potted Christmas tree for the season and then return it so it can continue to grow and be used again by you or someone else the following year, although there don’t seem to be tree rental businesses in Contra Costa County.

Conclusion It’s difficult to ascertain a definitive green winner between real or fake Christmas trees, and there are many studies weighing the negative and positive impacts on the environment, such as this one. We want to be mindful of these and other decisions that affect our planet around the holiday season, such as increased flight travel, resources required for giving gifts, plastic and paper packaging, and the aftermath of waste.

So, the battle between real and fake Christmas trees rages on, and we must decide for ourselves which choice best suits our lifestyle, family traditions, and philosophy on how best to be green for the holidays. Whatever you decide, enjoy your choice and have a Happy Holiday!

Sources and further reading:















Photo by Josh Bean on Unsplash

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  • Some builders are looking to wood construction as a renewable form of building. But like Christmas trees, the devil is in the details—what kind of wood, how is it grown, and so on. It seems to me that the more we are in tune with natural processes the better. Thanks for this primer on a holiday icon.
    • Great points! As always, “It’s complicated,” so it’s good to arm ourselves with knowledge!
  • Alison--Great discussion of Christmas tree life cycles and the trade-offs! Could there be an opportunity to re-imagine this iconic holiday tradition?...perhaps converting trash to trees and creating a new art form. :)
    • “From Trash to Trees” would be a great article for 2024!
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