Christmas tree farm
Christmas tree farm (via Shutterstock)

It makes sense to wonder if leaving trees in the ground would be better for the environment than buying a fake one.

“I’ve dealt with this now for, I don’t know how many years,” said Bert Cregg, a professor of horticulture and forestry at Michigan State University. “I get this question all the time.”

Cregg is one the handful of academics who has devoted serious research to the question of climate and Christmas trees. His bottom line? “Both real and artificial Christmas trees have negligible environmental impacts,” Cregg said. He referred to the question as a “tempest in a teapot,” something that’s been exaggerated out of proportion.

Most people probably burn more carbon getting to and from work every day than they would buying a real or fake Christmas tree, he said.

But Cregg is not entirely apathetic on the issue — he likes to think of it from a broader sustainability perspective, which, in addition to the environment, considers the economic and social impacts of decisions, too.

And from that point of view, Cregg says that locally-cut trees come out as winners. When you buy from a tree farm, “you’re supporting the local economy, you’re supporting the local community …. versus when you buy an artificial tree, the vast majority are produced in China and shipped over.”

He added that tree farmers routinely participate in charitable causes, like Trees for Troops.

His advice is to buy a tree locally at a choose-and-cut farm, try to find trees that are grown nearby, and if you can, “pick up your trees as part of your normal driving and commute,” rather than taking an extra trip.

But not everyone lives close to a choose-and-cut farm, so the question still lingers — does a real Christmas tree or a fake tree have a lower carbon footprint? The answer depends on lots of variables, like how long consumers keep an artificial tree, versus how far they would drive each year to purchase a real tree, among other factors.

To help you choose, here are some facts on the climate impact of real and fake Christmas trees from Carbon Trust, a London-based international sustainability consultancy:

Real Christmas trees:

  • The average Christmas tree, about six feet tall with no roots, emits 35 pounds of CO2 if it goes to landfill. When trees get dumped in the trash, they decompose and produce methane, which is 25 times more potent than carbon as a greenhouse gas.
  • If you compost, plant, or chip that same tree, you can cut the amount of C02 emitted by up to 80%, bringing carbon emissions per tree down to about 8 pounds, roughly equivalent to driving a car 9 miles.
  • Many municipalities provide tree recycling services for free, so composting trees is more common than you might think.
  • Burning your tree releases the same amount of C02 that the tree stored when it was growing. But unlike composting, which releases the C02 slowly, burning releases it immediately, making the climate impact greater. (Check your local rules before burning anything!)
  • Christmas tree farmers argue that tree farms are good for the environment because they provide wildlife habitat, store carbon in the soil, and help moderate floods and droughts.
  • On the flip side, some scientists contest that those arguments fail to consider other negative impacts of christmas tree farming, such as the use of pesticides.

Artificial Christmas trees:

  • The carbon footprint of artificial trees is more than twice as high as natural trees — about 88 pounds of CO2 emitted per 6’ tree.
  • Artificial trees are typically made from a combination of metals and Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl) or polyethylene plastic. Manufacturing these materials is a carbon-intensive process. Recycling these materials is difficult and rare.
  • An artificial tree would have to last for 10 years at a minimum to have a lower overall carbon footprint than a real tree that was properly disposed of (composted, planted or chipped).
  • Artificial tree manufacturers contest that timeline, though, and have funded research that found the break-even point is closer to 5 years.
  • Cregg says that industry research is flawed, because it ignores the contribution of tree roots left behind by cut Christmas trees. Those roots store a lot of carbon. “Really, the only long term storage you would get from [real] Christmas tree production is going to be the change in soil organic matter.”
  • Artificial tree owners can reduce their environmental impact by selling or donating their trees when they no longer need them, rather than throwing them out.

Meanwhile: Christmas tree farmers are struggling to make a comeback from the Great Recession. Demographics and climate change (more droughts in the winter and more extreme floods in the summer) have made Christmas tree farming harder.

Overall, a dwindling share of Americans are chopping down conifers during the holiday season, opting for artificial Christmas trees instead. (Some even come pre-decorated and pre-lit!) 

Whether or not that trend proves to be positive or negative for the climate depends on how long artificial tree-buyers keep their trees, and what they do with them when they don’t want them anymore, among other factors.

The final word: Cregg says whatever your preference, artificial or fake, “the key to relieving environmental angst is planning to reuse or recycle your tree.”