(CNN) It's the time of the year when most Americans finish Thanksgiving leftovers and venture out in search for the best holiday sales. More importantly, they plan their household centerpiece of the season: the Christmas tree.
While some revel in the scent of a real tree and the joy of picking one out at a local farm, others prefer the simplicity of artificial trees they can reuse for Christmases to come.
But consumers are becoming more climate-conscious, and considering which tree has the lowest impact on our rapidly warming planet has become a vital part of the holiday decision. Plus, choosing a planet-friendly tree will likely get you on Santa's good list.
So, which kind of tree has the lowest carbon footprint — a natural tree or a store-bought plastic tree? It's complicated, experts say.
"It's definitely a lot more nuanced and complex than you think," Andy Finton, the landscape conservation director and forest ecologist for the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, told CNN.
I’ve long hated the idea of a Christmas tree. No, it’s not the tree itself, just the thought of destroying a tree so I could decorate and display it in my living room for a month or so. Then, we’d throw it out…and, well, what became of it?
Eventually, I “solved” the problem by buying an artificial tree. It came in a box, you screwed the branches into holes, and it looked sorta/kinda/maybe like a real tree. If you didn’t look too closely, that is. The good news was that I didn’t have to feel guilty about destroying a tree that would go to waste after a relatively short time.
Well, as the man said, it turns out that my reasoning may have been somewhat flawed. The argument may well turn on how long you keep an artificial tree. If you use it for six years or more, the carbon cost may be less than buying a natural tree every Christmas. Then again, some argue that carbon equivalence may take as long as 20 years.
That's because artificial trees are typically made of polyvinyl chloride plastic, or PVC. Plastic is petroleum-based and created at pollution-belching petrochemical facilities. Studies have also linked PVC plastic to cancer and other public health and environmental risks.
Then there's the transportation aspect. According to the US Department of Commerce, most artificial Christmas trees are imported into the US from China, meaning the products are carried by fossil fuel-powered ships across the Pacific Ocean, then moved by heavy freight trucks before it ultimately lands on the distributor's shelves or the consumer's doorstep.
The American Christmas Tree Association, a nonprofit that represents artificial tree manufacturers, commissioned WAP Sustainability Consulting for a study in 2018 that found the environmental impact of an artificial tree is better than a real tree if you use the fake tree for at least five years.
"Artificial trees were looked at [in the study] for factors such as manufacturing and overseas transportation," Jami Warner, executive director of ACTA, told CNN. "Planting, fertilizing and watering were taken into account for real trees, which have an approximate field cultivation period of seven to eight years."
Most Christmas trees in the U.S. are farm-grown, with a large percentage coming from here in the Pacific Northwest. That means the good news is that we’re not destroying as much native forest as many might have feared, though each tree cut down does represent the loss of potential carbon dioxide absorption.
The good news is that trees are renewable resources, and Christmas tree farms generally replant trees as quickly as they harvest them. That means, at least in theory, that the net loss of carbon dioxide absorption should be around zero.
The benefit of getting trees from a farm is that producers depend on a consistent supply of trees for their income, so they have an incentive to replant continually. It also means that the impact of tree removal is limited to one area and thus can be managed more effectively.
On average, it takes seven years to fully grow a Christmas tree, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. And as it grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. Protecting forests and planting trees can help stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis by removing the planet-warming gas from the atmosphere.
If trees are cut down or burned, they can release the carbon they've been storing back into the atmosphere. But Doug Hundley, spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, which advocates for real trees, says the act of cutting down Christmas trees from a farm is balanced out when farmers immediately plant more seedlings to replace them.
"When we harvest the trees or cut them, we plant back very quickly," Hundley said….
There's also an economic benefit to going natural, since most of the trees people end up getting are grown at nearby farms. About 15,000 farms grow Christmas trees in the US alone, employing over 100,000 people either full or part-time in the industry, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
"What we're doing by purchasing a natural Christmas tree is supporting local economies, local communities, local farmers and to me, that's a key part of the conservation equation," Finton said. "When a tree grower can reap economic benefits from their land, they're less likely to sell it for development and less likely to convert it to other uses."
All of this information then boils down, at least in my mind, to matters of disposal. How does one dispose of natural and artificial trees, and what are the potential impacts of each?
Though I’ve always preferred artificial trees, the disposal question for a natural tree should probably be a deciding factor for me. Of course, I can always cut up a tree and burn it in the fire pit in our backyard. I need to allow for time to allow the wood to dry, but the boughs burn bright and fast because of the pitch.
Christmas trees can be recycled and turned into products from mulch to habitat restoration to erosion control in streams and waterways.
Artificial trees? Well, they tend to end up in landfills, never again to reappear in any form.
So, yes, the edge, at least from where I sit, goes to natural trees, but if you do it right, the carbon footprint of your choice should be minimal. There are far more impactful decisions that can have a positive impact on climate change.
Whatever you decide to do, be thoughtful about it. Recycle your natural trees; most cities have programs- either drop-off or pickup- that will get trees to recyclers so that they may begin the next stage of their existence.
If you buy an artificial tree, purchase something you’ll be comfortable using for several years. That way, you’ll minimize the impact on the environment coming and going.
Whatever type of tree graces your home this Christmas, I hope it will be one that will bring you joy and comfort. Because, like everything this holiday season, that’s what it should be about.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you enjoyed it, I hope you’ll take a few seconds and join the party via a paid subscription. While you’re at it, why not forward this to a few like-minded friends who might also enjoy it!! You can also donate via Venmo (@Jack-Cluth).