When it comes to Christmas trees, a real tree, surprisingly, isn’t always the greenest choice.
If you buy and use an artificial tree at least four years, its environmental impact equals that of a fresh-cut tree purchased every year for the same number of years, said Elizabeth Myers Toman, an assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University.
That’s because each year’s drive to buy a real tree adds to the amount of carbon dioxide and other climate change-causing carbon compounds entering the atmosphere. Buying a plastic tree typically involves one trip to a store, which is usually a nearby retailer, then only annual trips by foot to the attic or basement to retrieve it every December.
Drive 25 miles or more to buy that real tree and the overall carbon footprint is greater than that of an artificial tree — even if you use the artificial tree only once before tossing it, Toman said. That’s regardless of whether you get rid of your fresh-cut tree by sending it to a landfill, burning it or composting it.
“How far a person drives to get the tree — real or artificial — has the most significant impact on the environment,” said Toman, who teaches a course about the life cycle of products from production to disposal to determine their total effect on the environment.
While they’re alive, trees take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen — a plus for the environment. And if they’re composted or even burned after they’re taken down, key nutrients return to the soil. All good.
An artificial tree is made of plastic, typically manufactured in a factory overseas, then transported to the United States, all of which has a carbon footprint. But the longer the artificial tree is used, the effect on the environment can become less than that of a real tree, Toman said.
“Just because a product is biodegradable doesn’t mean it’s the most green, environmentally friendly product,” Toman said. “How the product is used often determines how much of an impact it has on the environment.”
In the case of Christmas trees, that means not only how it gets to a person’s home but also the type of lights strung on it. Holiday lights, whether they’re LED or incandescent, have more of an effect on the environment than whether the tree is plastic or real, Toman said.
Using incandescent lights on a tree for just one year can have a greater energy demand than the total energy required over the lifetime of a tree to manufacture, transport and dispose of the tree, whether artificial or real, she said.
“So if you’ve got an artificial tree, you don’t necessarily have to feel guilty about it,” Toman said.
Certainly where the tree ends up factors into its environmental impact.
At the end of the holiday season, a real tree that’s composted can return to the soil crucial nutrients that will in turn help spur the growth of other trees.
When the artificial tree is no longer needed or wanted, donating it will offer it another life with a different home enjoyed by a different collection of people, rather than lodged in a landfill where it will take hundreds of years to degrade.
Alayna DeMartini writes for the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Elizabeth Myers Toman also contributed to this story.