If your holiday traditions include a Christmas tree, you may have grappled with the question of whether an artificial or real tree is better for the planet. The answer is that there are pros and cons to each — and there are also outside-the-box alternatives that will help you tread lightly this holiday season.
Pros: A live tree sequesters carbon, supports local economies, and can be used as beneficial mulch, animal feed, artificial reefs or wildlife brush piles at the end of its life.
Cons: Unfortunately, much of the carbon sequestered in live trees is released once they are cut and disposed of at the end of the holiday season. Real Christmas trees are also often sprayed with chemical pesticides that are bad for workers and the environment and can leave residues in your tree that are toxic for the people and pets in your home. They also often travel hundreds of miles from where they’re grown to where they’re sold, creating air and climate pollution.
Pros: Research has shown that the longer an artificial tree is used the smaller negative impact it will have on the environment. However, you’ll need to use your artificial tree between 12 and 20 years to match the smaller carbon footprint of a real tree. Additionally, artificial trees often have other effects on wildlife, local water supplies, land preservation and local jobs that life cycle analyses don’t capture.
Cons: Most artificial trees are made from plastic, specifically PVC (vinyl — #3 plastic). Plastic is a fossil fuel-based material that requires a lot of chemicals, so it’s harmful to the climate and creates toxic pollution. Also, most artificial trees are made in China, and transporting them around the world creates greenhouse gases. Finally, at the end of an artificial tree’s useful life it’s rarely recycled but instead disposed of in a landfill or incinerator, potentially harming wildlife.
Live trees come out slightly ahead of artificial trees because no amount of decoration can hide the fact that plastic starts as fossil fuels and chemicals and ends as pollution and wildlife hazards. If you do go with a real tree, pick a living tree that can be planted afterwards, preferably one that is grown organically. You can look for organic Christmas tree farms in your area here. The best plastic tree is one that you already have or that you find at a thrift store so you’re not contributing to new plastic production.
To make your Christmas even greener, instead of purchasing a real or artificial tree, consider some fun and funky alternatives that can be made with materials you already have at home. Trees made of string, recyclable cardboard, books, twigs or a vintage metal tree are all creative alternatives with beautiful aesthetics and they’re better for the planet too.
Whether it’s a large or small gathering, entertaining can add serious stress to celebrations. We’re bombarded with images of extravagant holiday decorations and elaborate recipes. With standards like that, a simple party can become a monstrous task. Take a look at our Simpler Entertaining Guide to help ease the party planning, the Earth-friendly way.
SoKind is a registry and wishlist service that encourages the giving of homemade gifts, charitable donations, secondhand goods, experiences, time, day-of-event help, and more. Here's to more fun and less stuff!
“What I did for gifts when I was a poor college student was do paint-by-numbers and frame them and give them to friends – it doubled as my decompressing/ relaxing time and also as a gift!”
“My partner recently got me a cooking class over Skype for my birthday. I just signed up to do it in a couple weekends – I’ll be making homemade ravioli with someone in Italy!”
“One winter break I was home and offered to organize my sister’s room. She is a sentimental T-shirt collector and I convinced her to pick her favorites she wasn’t actually wearing anymore for me to make into a T-shirt quilt. I shared my skills of organization and gave a handmade gift of a quilt.”
*Methodology: The Center for Biological Diversity aggregated trash, recycling, yard waste and food waste data from 8 local governments across the country for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 calendar years. Data was reported in tons. Per capita rates were calculated using population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Pounds per person was calculated using the EPA’s estimation that 4.9 pounds of waste is generated per person per day. We assume any variations in market-level data when aggregated are representative of a national trend.
In one U.S. survey, the following were given as the top reasons for traveling: