Are Real Christmas Trees Bad for the Environment?

Are Real Christmas Trees Bad for the Environment?

Dennis Kamprad

Read Time:6 Minutes


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The thought of cutting down a real Christmas tree every year doesn’t sound very sustainable. And we all know that toxic pesticides are a big issue in all of agriculture. So we had to ask: Are real Christmas trees bad for the environment?

Real Christmas trees are not bad for the environment if they were farmed sustainably and locally. Unethical farming practices or uncontrolled forest exploitation, however, make them bad for the environment. And improper disposal of real Christmas trees will cause additional environmental harm.

This article will look at some of the big issues surrounding the production of real Christmas trees and their impact on the environment. It will also compare real trees to artificial ones to better understand the environmental harm caused by the alternative.

It’s The Most Wasteful Time of the Year

It is said that during December is when people have more of a negative impact on the environment than during most of the year. Generally, we buy, consume, travel, and waste more during this holiday month. Contributing to a global carbon footprint globally, 6% higher than the rest of the year. 

And one recognized part of this environmental impact is Christmas trees: After several years of growth, we cut trees down to decorate our homes for mere weeks only to throw them away afterward–most of the time in local garbage dumps.

And real Christmas trees that are not recycled properly and instead sent to landfills instead have a significant carbon footprint. There, the tree will decompose and produce methane–an odorless gas that stands as a big threat to both human health and the climate.

But there’s more to it.

Unethical Practices Will Cause Damage

Tens of millions of Christmas trees are produced and cut each year between the US and Europe. Typically, these are fir trees grown specifically for the holiday season. The environmental impact is significant enough that it shouldn’t be ignored, and many question if such annual cuts are necessary.

Further concerns surround the survival of some species of conifers that are endangered by the deforestation caused by these annual cuts. According to The Global Trees Campaign, over 200 species of conifers globally face extinction.

Like any other farm, a Christmas tree farm requires particular resources for trees to grow. If farms are attempting to grow tree species that normally do not grow in that region, then there is the potential to harm the environment.

Beyond this, when trees are not grown on farms, the oftentimes uncontrolled forest exploitation may lead to critical environmental imbalances, changes in the climate, natural disasters, or endanger animals that use the forests as their home.

But perhaps the most prevalent issue with real Christmas trees is the use of pesticides.

The most current data of pesticide-use patterns comes from a 2009 USDA survey of Christmas tree growers. The study covered six states (California, Florida, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas), accounting for 63% of all Christmas trees grown in the United States. From this, we learned that 270,000 pounds of pesticides were sprayed on Christmas trees in these six states each year.

But it isn’t just the amount of pesticides being used that is concerning; it is also the type. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, eight controversial pesticides make up 85% of the total amount used:

  • Atrazine
  • Carbaryl
  • Chlorothalonil
  • Chlorpyrifos
  • Dimethoate
  • Glyphosate
  • Hexazinone
  • Simazine

These chemicals have several negative health effects, such as cancer, neurotoxicity, asthma, organ damage, and more. 

Furthermore, a study from North Carolina State University shows that most of the Christmas tree farms in the state use the insecticide bifenthrin and glyphosate (Roundup) to treat 42.9 and 97.5% of all tree acres, respectively. In recent years, we have seen the damage that glyphosate has done; the World Health Organization classifies it as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” 

The best choice for real Christmas trees will come from organic tree farms that avoid such chemicals. 

Not All Real Christmas Trees Are Bad

Many people believe that real Christmas trees come from wild forests and that this contributes to deforestation. However, the vast majority of trees grown on farms are grown to combat that very issue. Science shows us that the best way to protect and preserve forests is to utilize them. Simple, natural solutions, such as restoring our forests, can help to cut more than 30% of the carbon emissions we need to slow climate change.

The total impact of real Christmas trees is estimated by researchers using a method called life cycle assessment. It accounts for everything from planting to harvesting to disposing of trees, including pesticide and fertilizer use, farming equipment use, and water consumption. These assessments can often estimate the carbon footprint of a production system. 

In Christmas tree production, fuel use is the largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions. A tractor or delivery truck releases 20 – 22 lbs (9 -10 kg) of carbon dioxide with every 1 gallon of gas or diesel used. 

However, the good news is that trees absorb and store carbon as they grow, which helps to reduce and offset the emissions that come from operations. At harvest, about 50% of the tree’s wood’s dry weight is represented by carbon. In fact, estimates show that conifers of average Christmas tree height store approximately 20 lbs (9kg) of carbon dioxide in their tissue above ground and probably about the same amount in their roots below ground.

Local Tree Farms: Sustainable & Eco-Friendly

Thanks to the National Christmas Tree Association, tree-farms are growing real, North American Christmas trees in all 50 states. (The top producing states are Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin.) Plus, over half of U.S. forests are owned privately. So supporting the local landowners will help the local communities as well.

Covering nearly 350,000 acres over 15,000 farms, the tree farming-industry ethically employs more than 100,000 people in both full-time and part-time positions. These hard-working men and women practice sustainable farming every day to help keep their land healthy and their forests full. These forests are home to many wildlife creatures and contribute to a healthy ecosystem.

For every real Christmas tree harvested in the fall and winter, farmers will plant one to three seedlings in the spring to take its place. This means we get more and more trees to fight climate change and give essential benefits for people and the planet, such as clean air, water, healthy soil, and wildlife habitat. Organizations like The Nature Conservancy have a Plant a Billion Trees initiative that provides trees to habitats around the globe that are most in need. 

Purchasing a real Christmas tree supports local tree farmers and contributes to the maintenance of healthy forests for the next generation.

Artificial Christmas Trees Are Worse for the Environment Than Real Ones

There is a misconception that artificial trees are the eco-friendly alternative to real trees. However, artificial trees are just as bad–in many cases, worse–for the environment. Most artificial trees are made from PVC, or polyvinyl chloride. It contains toxic additives, such as cadmium and lead, and the WHO classifies it definitively as a “known human carcinogen.”

Additionally, since artificial trees are flammable, many companies will apply flame retardants, which are known to cause neurological toxicity and cancer–among other things.

Figures from the Carbon Trust tell us about 66% of the emissions from manufacturing any type of plastic trees comes from the carbon-intensive oil used to make them, and around 25% of emissions come from the overall manufacturing process.

The Carbon Trust also estimates that an artificial tree just 6.5 feet (2 meters) in height creates around 88 lbs (40 kg) CO2e–that’s over twice the amount of a real Christmas tree, even accounting for methane production if it ends up in a landfill. 

In the end, you only start to see a reduction of this impact by using an artificial tree for 10 years or more before it becomes a better choice than a real Christmas tree every year. 

By contrast, the same-sized real Christmas tree takes anywhere from five to ten years to grow to full height. During this time, the tree will absorb the CO2 in the atmosphere, helping offset global warming and climate change. So, in general, real Christmas trees really have less environmental impact than artificial trees, especially when trees are replanted after the holiday.

Final Thoughts

Many real Christmas tree farms still use toxic pesticides that are harmful to the environment. This is easily one of the biggest issues facing the industry–indeed, all of agriculture. However, the natural, positive impact that growing trees have on carbon emissions and the environment, in general, is measurably more beneficial for overall planet health. Make the biggest impact by buying your real Christmas tree from local, organic tree farms.

Stay impactful,

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