An Environmental Defense of Real Christmas Trees
Christmas is a holiday that involves traditions and rituals: gift giving, baking cookies, watching movies, caroling, and many others. Many would agree that an indispensable component to the Christmas tradition is the evergreen Christmas tree.
The use of evergreen trees specifically in a Christian context originated in western Europe (Germany) during the Renaissance, but tree worship and rituals have been practiced around the world for centuries. Evergreen trees serve as symbols for protection and eternal life dating back to ancient Hebrew, Egyptian, and Chinese societies, as well as pagan European communities. The function of the tree in the Christmas celebration is to establish a gathering center for the family to celebrate their religion, engage in ritual gift giving, and to facilitate the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree with special or religiously significant ornaments. Part of the tradition for many families encompasses not just the tree and its decorations, but also going out and acquiring the tree from a local tree farm or lot. This aspect makes the process a lot more personal and connects families with nature to a certain degree.
Growing up, my family used the same artificial Christmas tree every year. Rather than going out to a lot to pick up a new tree each year, part of our tradition was taking the plastic branches out of the box and assembling the wire frames. We chose to use an artificial tree for two reasons: my mom was adamant about not having to clean up fallen pine needles (can’t blame her for that one), and we thought it would be less wasteful and better for the environment to reuse the same tree each year rather than get a new live one each time.
Up until very recently, I believed that this was still the case. Upon researching the pros and cons of natural and artificial trees, I have come to find that the reality is much more nuanced. On the surface level, artificial trees appear to be the most sustainable and environmentally friendly choice for a Christmas tree. You buy one, keep it for years, and no trees are cut down in the process. However, the reality is artificial trees are usually made of plastic, polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC) to be exact. One artificial tree requires a vast amount of these harmful resources to create. According to nature.org, of the 10 million artificial Christmas trees that are purchased in the U.S. each year, about 90% of them are shipped from China, incurring a massive carbon footprint (about 88 lbs of CO2 per tree)! Estimates from CNN and onetreeplanted.org stipulate that a household would need to keep the same artificial tree for 10-20 years to offset its own carbon footprint. And even then, regardless of how long you keep it, when you inevitably get rid of it, it will end up in a landfill, where it will not biodegrade for hundreds of years.
The apparent environmental cons of artificial trees outweigh the benefits of their convenience. On the other hand, using natural trees for Christmas celebrations has active benefits for the environment. Local Christmas tree farms are a sustainable crop; typically only certain sections of the farm are open for harvesting, while the rest of the areas are closed to allow the rest of the trees to continue to grow (maintaining habitats for wildlife and allowing for carbon absorption to combat the emissions created by logging). Nature.org reports that of the 350 to 500 million Christmas trees growing in America, only 30 million are harvested each year. The Christmas Tree Promotion Board attests that Christmas tree farmers are focused on balancing harvesting and planting by planting a new seedling for each tree that is cut down. As far as disposal, real trees can be recycled for materials like mulch, or even composted, which definitely cannot be said for artificial trees.
Other benefits to using real trees include supporting local tree farmers and having a wonderfully heavy and natural pine scent that fills up a house. If you celebrate Christmas, consider using a real live tree this year, if your circumstances allow!