Real Vs. Artificial: Which Type Of Christmas Tree Is The Most Eco-Friendly?
Molly Grace9 minute read
PUBLISHED: November 22, 2021 | UPDATED: November 08, 2022
- When it’s time to decorate for the holidays, most Americans opt for an artificial tree.
- 60.5% of people think that artificial trees are more eco-friendly than real trees.
- To lessen their environmental impact, it’s recommended that artificial-tree owners keep their tree for a decade or more, but most people only plan to own theirs for a total of 5 years.
- A third of real-tree owners say they throw their tree in the trash when they’re done with it, which increases the tree’s carbon footprint fourfold compared to burning the tree or turning it into mulch.
To some, there’s nothing better than the sweet, pine-y smell of a freshly cut tree, glimmering with lights, shedding its needles on their living room floors and demanding frequent waterings. For others, the routine of pulling the same beloved tree out from storage year after year is one they cherish, even if it means missing out on that great, real tree smell or the experience of making the trip to a tree farm to pick out just the right one.
Regardless of the type they choose, one thing is certain: Americans love to celebrate the winter holidays with a tree. Though traditionally associated with Christmas, in a recent Rocket Homes℠ survey of individuals who decorate their homes with a tree, 16.4% of respondents reported celebrating a holiday other than Christmas at this time of the year.
However, as Americans become more eco-conscious, a new debate has sprung up in recent years: which type of Christmas tree is better for the environment? Should people be upending their holiday traditions in the name of reducing their carbon footprints?
Which Type Of Christmas Tree Is The Most Eco-Friendly?
Artificial trees are more popular than real ones; 67.4% of Americans say their main Christmas or holiday tree is an artificial one, while 32.6% opt for a real tree, according to the Rocket Homes survey.
Overall, most people – 60.5% of respondents – also believe that artificial trees are better for the environment. However, this may be because people are likely to think that their own tree is the more eco-friendly choice. Of those who said they use a real tree, 72.2% believe that real trees are better for the environment. Of those who opt for an artificial tree, 76.4% believe artificial trees are better.
So, who’s right?
Real-tree lovers point to the benefits that a Christmas tree farm provides to the environment and the pollution created during the manufacturing and shipping of artificial trees as reasons why real trees are superior. Proponents of artificial trees, on the other hand, assert that their ability to reuse their tree year after year and the fact that they aren’t cutting down a tree is proof enough that artificial trees are the more eco-friendly choice.
A 6 ½-foot real tree can have a carbon footprint between 3.5 – 16kg of CO2, according to the Carbon Trust. An artificial tree of the same size has a carbon footprint of 40kg of CO2, meaning it generates between 2 ½ – 11 times more carbon emissions than its live counterpart.
While this means that real trees are usually the eco-friendlier choice, a lot depends on how long households hold onto their artificial trees or how they choose to dispose of their real ones.
Pros And Cons Of Real Trees
Tim O’Connor, the executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade organization that represents real Christmas tree growers and sellers, says the idea that artificial trees are better for the environment than real ones is “ridiculous.”
“I think where that comes from is most of us have grown up being taught ‘don’t cut a tree, it’s bad for the environment,’ and people don’t recognize that a Christmas tree is a crop,” O’Connor says. “It’s no different than a pumpkin or lettuce or any other crops that are grown to be harvested.”
Indeed, when asked why they believed artificial trees to be more eco-friendly, many respondents in the Rocket Homes survey said they thought that chopping down a tree just for a single holiday was wasteful and bad for the environment. But Christmas tree farms actually have a generally positive impact on the local ecosystem.
“Most Christmas trees are grown in areas where other crops don’t do so well,” O’Connor says. “It’s primarily very hilly ground, and so while a tree is growing, it helps control erosion, it provides a natural habitat for animals, it turns carbon dioxide into oxygen through the photosynthesis process. It’s beautiful – a Christmas tree farm is really a pretty place.”
O’Connor says that, while real trees are a part of nature and fully biodegradable, artificial trees don’t decompose and aren’t recyclable.
“What is a fake Christmas tree? It begins as oil, it’s turned into PVC plastic that’s blended with metal, the trees are primarily made in a factory in China and shipped over on a boat,” he said.
The trees grown at Christmas tree farms take about 7 years to grow, according to NCTA. When a tree is harvested, 1 – 3 seedlings are planted to replace it. And Christmas tree farms are local, family-owned businesses, says O’Connor. Buying a tree from a local farm means supporting a local small business.
Real trees generally have a lower carbon footprint than artificial trees, but just how much lower depends on how a household disposes of their tree when they’re done with it. The Carbon Trust says that burning the tree or turning it into mulch keeps its footprint down to 3.5kg of CO2.
The good news is that most people do just that: 30.5% of real tree owners reported burning their tree or turning it into firewood at the end of the season, and 21.4% said they turn their tree into wood chips. Another 14.3% said they plant theirs, which can be done if a live tree with the root ball attached is purchased.
However, those who drag theirs out to the curb for trash collection – which includes 33.8% of real tree owners – are seriously compounding their tree’s environmental impact. When a tree is thrown in the garbage, it ends up in a landfill, where it will decompose and create methane, a greenhouse gas that is significantly more powerful than carbon dioxide. Disposing of a real tree in this manner boosts its carbon footprint up to 16kg of CO2. If a household does this year after year, they could potentially end up contributing more carbon emissions over time than some long-term artificial tree owners.
Pros And Cons Of Artificial Trees
Artificial Christmas trees are made from PVC plastic and shipped primarily from China. A single artificial tree has a carbon footprint of around 40kg of CO2.
The key to reducing the environmental impact of an artificial tree is to reuse it for many years. Jami Warner, the executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association – NCTA’s artificial tree industry counterpart – stresses the importance of looking at an artificial tree as an investment.
“We really recommend that consumers think of this tree as a long-term purchase, and focus on finding a tree that is high quality, sturdy, and can be stored easily and safely during the year,” Warner says.
Per the Carbon Trust’s data on tree carbon footprints, those who have an artificial tree should reuse it for at least 10 holiday seasons to keep its environmental impact lower than that of getting a new real tree each year. According to Warner, a high-quality artificial tree can last as many as 20 years.
Not everyone plans to own theirs for that long, though. Rocket Homes asked artificial-tree owners to specify the total number of years they plan to keep their current artificial tree and found the median of their responses. As it turns out, most people plan to own their artificial tree for only 5 years.
Spending a little bit more money on their tree may be worth it for households looking to reduce their holiday carbon footprint, as a good quality tree will typically last longer than a cheap one.
What Factors Are Most Important To Consumers When They Purchase A New Tree?
Of course, eco-friendliness isn’t the only – or even the most important – factor consumers consider when purchasing a Christmas or holiday tree.
“The best tree is the one that’s right for a consumer’s needs, space and traditions,” Warner says. “There’s no such thing as a bad Christmas tree.”
Cost is at the top of consumers’ minds, with 57.5% of all tree owners saying it influenced their tree purchase.
Another major factor is tradition/holiday experience. In fact, it was the most important factor for those who prefer a real tree: 55.2% of real tree owners listed this as an influential factor, compared to 46% of artificial tree owners.
For both groups, eco-friendliness did have some influence, but not as much as other factors. And unsurprisingly, upkeep was a much more important factor among those who prefer an artificial tree – 30.8% of artificial tree owners chose this as an influential factor, compared to just 15.6% of real tree owners. Those who need an easy-to-care-for tree are naturally going to gravitate toward artificial.
Who’s Buying Real Vs. Artificial Trees?
Millennials are the generation most likely to have a real tree: 39% of tree owners from this group reported having a real tree, compared to 33.9% of Gen Xers and 24.7% of baby boomers.
A 2020 NCTA survey also found that real-tree buyers are getting younger – compared to 2019, the average age of a real-tree buyer dropped 4 years in 2020.
Urbanites are more likely to own a real tree than those in suburban or rural areas, according to Rocket Homes. 39.9% of urban dwellers reported owning a real Christmas or holiday tree, while 32.4% of those in the suburbs and 25.4% of rural inhabitants said the same.
Which Costs More, A Real Or Artificial Tree?
Because cost was the most influential factor overall for those purchasing a holiday or Christmas tree, it makes sense that so many people prefer artificial to real. Even though real trees are typically less expensive than artificial ones, reusing them over the course of several years can ultimately save money.
According to ACTA, artificial trees cost an average of $104 in 2019. However, due to supply chain constraints, consumers should anticipate spending a bit more than that this year. And according to NCTA, the median price of a real Christmas tree in 2019 was $76.87. Real trees may also experience a modest increase in prices in 2021, but likely not as much as artificial ones, says Consumer Reports.
The cost of artificial trees can also vary quite a bit, depending on the size of the tree and the bells and whistles that come with it. Top-of-the-line models can cost thousands of dollars, while more simple versions can be found for less than $50.
Though they’re often more expensive upfront, artificial trees have the benefit of being reusable, so that over the course of several years, a person may end up spending less overall on an artificial tree than they would have purchasing a new real one each holiday.
What’s Your Holiday Carbon Footprint?
It’s important to remember that Christmas trees are just one small part of an extremely carbon-heavy time of year, with all the travel, gifts (including the extra-speedy shipping that delivers them), food waste and electricity use that comes with celebrating the holidays. For those looking to reduce their overall holiday carbon footprint, there are plenty of ways to do so beyond (or in addition to) their trees.
According to Yale Sustainability, the carbon footprint of an artificial tree is about the same as driving 100 miles. Those driving a similar distance to visit family this season can help reduce their impact by offering to carpool with nearby relatives.
Buy gifts from local or sustainability-minded retailers, or opt for gift cards for difficult-to-buy-for loved ones to ensure their gifts don’t end up in a landfill shortly after the holidays are over.
When it comes to the tree, artificial-tree owners can limit their carbon footprint by properly maintaining and storing their trees so they last for many years. When they’re ready to retire their current tree, donating it or giving it away is a better option than throwing it in the garbage.
Real-tree owners should properly dispose of their trees each year to ensure minimal environmental impact. This typically means either burning it or turning it into mulch. Some cities and towns will do this for households, collecting old trees curbside or at designated drop-off points and recycling them into wood chips for the community.
To really benefit the environment, consider purchasing a live tree that can be replanted once the holidays are over.
As the effects of climate change become more visible, it’s vital that everyone takes seriously the environmental impact of their choices. Whether Americans are celebrating with a real tree or an artificial one, reevaluating their holiday decor choices is a good way to make some simple, positive changes – as long as they remember to keep making eco-friendly choices long after the halls are no longer decked with boughs of holly.
To understand Christmas or holiday tree preferences and beliefs, Rocket Homes surveyed 2,059 Americans who responded “yes” to the question “Do you currently own or plan to buy a Christmas/holiday tree?” The sample was controlled to include one-third millennials, one-third Gen Xers and one-third baby boomers, and to ensure that no gender was overrepresented. The survey was conducted in October 2021.
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