“Joy to the world!” Christmas is one of the biggest holiday celebrations of the year and Christmas trees have become essential symbols and components of this festive period. But Christmas trees come with an environmental cost with growing discussions in regards to real vs fake Christmas tree and its environmental impact.  With the holidays right around the corner, it’s time to reconsider the relationship between Christmas trees and environmentalism. 

Real vs Fake Christmas Tree Environmental Impact

Carbon Footprint

Real Christmas trees have an average carbon footprint of 3.5kg of carbon dioxide if they are disposed of via a wood chipper or bonfire. However, if they end up in landfills, the carbon footprint increases four-fold, which is equivalent to 16kg of carbon dioxide. 

There’s been growing discussions that plastic trees might be more environmentally-friendly due to its reusability. However, in comparison, a two metre-tall artificial tree is estimated to have an equivalent carbon cost of 40kg should it be discarded. In other words, we would have to reuse our artificial Christmas tree for at least 12 years for it to be more eco-friendly than a real Christmas tree.

Biodegradable vs Non-biodegradable

Real Christmas trees are biodegradable and have no chemical impacts to the surrounding environment. Composted Christmas trees can be used for lumber, mulch and fertilisation for next year’s crop. Some real Christmas trees have even been placed at the bottom of ponds, rivers and oceans to create new underwater habitats. 

Before being cut down, real Christmas trees have copious benefits to the surrounding natural ecosystem as they can accommodate numerous types of birds and mammals as well as absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, converting it into oxygen. However, some researchers argue that Christmas trees may not utilise their ultimate carbon absorbing capacity as they are generally chopped down in their “teenage years,” before trees reach full maturity when carbon sequestration potential is at its highest. 

Artificial Christmas trees are typically made of petroleum-based plastics and metal. Specifically, they are commonly made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). As they are non-biodegradable and non-recyclable, it may exacerbate the pressure on landfill when they are disposed of at the end of its life cycle. As such, it produces more greenhouse gases and pollutes surrounding ecosystems by leaking harmful chemicals into the soil. What’s more, plastic trees are usually manufactured in developing countries before being shipped to wealthy nations in the Global North. Long haul of shipping routes adds to its already high carbon footprints as well. 

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Christmas Trees and Consumerism 

Christmas trees have become an indelible part of our consumer culture. Approximately 33-36 million Christmas trees are sold within the United States and around 50-60 million in European countries, yet a significant portion of Christmas trees are actually not used for home decorations. Instead, increasingly in recent years, they are used as shopping mall displays due to their shimmering lights and Instagrammable decorations to attract more shoppers and visitors. In other words, the original meaning of Christmas trees as a symbol of families coming together is hardly applicable anymore.

What’s more, the demand for Christmas trees disturbs its original ecosystem as farmers need adequate resources to grow Christmas trees with the best conditions prior to chopping them down. As some tree species are non-native in certain regions, the massive use of water, herbicides, pesticide and fungicides to make Christmas trees grow efficiently damages the surrounding ecosystem. A human-induced plantation may also incur severe environmental imbalances and even natural disasters. In a nutshell, the original ecosystem has to pay the price due to an enormous demand for Christmas trees in our human society. 

Sustainable Christmas Trees

What can we do? While it’s clear that real Christmas trees might be more eco-friendly, the farming practices to meet global demands could degrade natural ecosystems. However, some Christmas trees are more sustainable than others. Here are five ways to make sure your festive purchase this year is as environmentally-friendly as possible:

  1. Purchase a secondhand artificial tree
  2. Decorate a living outside tree 
  3. Buy a live potted tree
  4. Reutilise the trunk as firewood
  5. Reutilise the trunk as a decorative piece and a resting area for birds and various types of cute animals. 

The original meaning of the Christmas tree is to provide a sense of hope for people during an endless and freezing winter on the European continent. As time passes by, the rise of mass production and contemporary consumerism are distorting the true meaning of the Christmas tree. Furthermore, its massive demand has also created an unchangeable threat to the current ecosystem. The growing debates surrounding real vs fake Christmas tree and its environmental impact are complex, and with Christmas just around the corner, let us reflect on how we can protect our environment and be more environmentally conscious as we make our purchases. 

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons