European Wilderness Society

Are Real or Fake Christmas Trees Better?

The production of a fake Christmas tree involves higher CO2 emissions than a natural one, even without taking into account the transport. Not only can real trees represent a better alternative from a sustainable and environmental point of view, but also for better effects on a local scale.

December, time to put up your Christmas tree

As Christmas is approaching, many households are getting ready for this holiday season. One of the most important elements, besides lights, candles and festive decorations, is the Christmas tree. The right time for a tree to go up spans from early December until Christmas, based on the customs and traditions of each country. Adorned with sparkling baubles and twinkling lights, they become the centrepiece of our houses during the festivities. Even more so when we place our wrapped gifts underneath. Seeing as the Christmas tree is such a focal point in our celebrations, getting it right is important.  And every year, the same dilemma surfaces: is a real or a fake Christmas tree better?

A comparison between real and artificial trees

Some of the factors to consider when choosing a tree include cost, convenience, safety, aesthetic and sensory experiences. One of the greatest benefits of an artificial tree is the cost since it can be reused year after year, which can save money in the long run. In addition to this, they can be stored at the end of the season and simply taken out for the following one instead of the hassle of going out and getting a real one. Due to the fact that real trees can become quite flammable as they dry out, artificial trees represent a flame retardant option too. Other clear advantages are that they don’t represent allergy triggers as well as they don’t drop needles and dirt in the house. 

On the other hand, there are also various reasons to choose a real tree over a fake one.

Usually, trees used for Christmas have been grown specifically for this use and have been farmed responsibly. Hence, no forest is harmed when a tree is sold. This also means that, for every tree that gets cut or potted, new trees are usually planted. Furthermore, buying a real one can often be a way to support rural and agricultural communities for which growing Christmas trees represents an important source of income, rather than supporting companies that produce artificial trees, often based in other countries or even continents. What really differentiates the experience of a real one is actually its look, texture and resin smell, which makes them so special and unique. The process of buying a real tree can also represent a part of the Christmas preparations and therefore a fundamental part of the holidays.

But, besides all these points listed above and many others that haven’t, which option is the most sustainable option?

Christmas trees from the perspective of sustainability

Over the last years, rough estimates calculated that an artificial tree had a carbon footprint equivalent to more than twice that of a real tree that ends its life in landfill. Compared to real trees that are burnt, turned into compost or used to grind into mulch, that goes up to even more than 10 times. This is because natural trees in landfills decompose and release methane gas, which is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Consequently, artificial trees need to be reused for at least 10 Christmases to keep their environmental impact lower than that of one real tree. In addition to this, fake trees are often not (fully) recyclable.

A recent study carried out by the Department of Agricultural, Food, Environment and Forestry (DAGRI) of the University of Florence, in collaboration with the Department of Industrial Engineering (DIEF) of the University of Florence, has analysed the life cycle assessment of both options in order to determine the impacts of the cultivation methods of a natural tree and of production of an artificial one.

For this study, equivalent trees were compared in terms of size (1.8 metres high) and aesthetics (foliage density). The natural tree examined comes from a mountainous rural area in Tuscany, Casentino, and the fake one from an average large industrial centre in China, which is the main producer of artificial Christmas trees. The Carbon Footprint was calculated from the moment of sourcing the raw materials or initiating the agricultural process to the delivery to the warehouse. This means the estimates did not take the transport phases into account. The results show that the production of a natural tree involves the emission of 0.522 kg of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), while an artificial tree with the same dimensional and aesthetic characteristics produces 19.4 kg (CO2e). If emissions from the transport were to be considered, the difference could be even bigger.

“Even assuming that the natural tree is renewed every year, the artificial tree should be reused at least 37 times (37 years) to match the impact of its natural counterpart. If the users are able to make the natural tree survive for longer than 1 year, its impact on the environment would be drastically reduced even more”.

Professor Giacomo Goli
Department of Agricultural, Food, Environment and Forestry (DAGRI) of the University of Florence

A further reflection concerned the economy of mountain areas, for which the production of the Christmas tree represents an important possibility for diversification. “By purchasing a natural tree we not only emit much fewer greenhouse gases, but we guarantee an income to rural populations and foster a shorter supply chain”, underlines prof. Goli. The natural tree is not taken from the woods, but is specially cultivated like any other agricultural crop in a land that is otherwise often at risk to be abandoned. “The production of Christmas trees represents an important supplement to income and a diversification of production that can make a difference in ensuring the survival of small and medium-sized farms such as those that characterize our mountain areas”, says Prof. Goli.

What to do then?

If you are still in the process of buying a tree, you can consider all these points and try to source a locally produced tree, artificial or natural. In any case, what matters the most is what happens at the end of the holiday season. If you want to buy (or already have) an artificial one, store it and make it last as many years as possible. If you choose a natural tree instead, potted ones can be taken care of, and, if they survive, be reused the following year. In any case, potted trees should not be transplanted in a natural environment because they might not be suitable for the climate and might negatively affect the local ecosystem. When a tree has finished its cycle, then it’s time to properly dispose of it.

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