However, one can look at the dilemma from a different point of view: which is more eco-friendly? Buying an artificial Christmas tree or a real one? We try to answer this question in the following.
The question was analysed in a 2009 study by Ellipsos, a Canadian consultancy company, with the Life-Cycle Assessment method. This method measures the given product’s or service’s environmental impact starting from the production of raw materials, following the product’s life cycle all the way to after it is used, namely, until it is handled as waste. Thus, the life-cycle assessment method includes the harvesting and production of raw materials, production processes, transport and distribution, (multiple) uses, and finally, recycling of the waste, if possible.
The study model specified the trees as being 210 cm tall, set up to be decorated in Montreal homes. As regards “production”, real Christmas trees were specified to have been cut down within a range of 150 km from Montreal, and the artificial Christmas trees were made in China, then transported to Canada via ship and train. The artificial Christmas trees’ life cycle was specified to be 6 years (the average time for which an artificial Christmas tree is kept in North America). For better comparability, the modes does not include other decorative elements and lights on the trees.
The results show that artificial Christmas trees contribute to climate change and the depletion of resources with an impact three times as big as real Christmas trees. When it comes to effects on human health, the two types of Christmas trees are mostly similar, however, artificial Christmas trees are four times better than real ones in the ecosystem quality category (meaning the natural environmental quality).
There is a significant difference when it comes to the impact on climate change. Compared to artificial Christmas trees, real Christmas trees produce 39% less carbon dioxide, however, we must mention, that artificial Christmas trees can be used multiple times, and since a significant part of carbon dioxide is generated during production, if we use artificial Christmas trees for a long enough time, it can prove to be a better solution. However, “a long enough time” means about 20 years of continuous use.
As I’ve already mentioned, the level of carbon dioxide emission is different in certain parts of the Christmas trees’ life cycles. The environmental impact of real Christmas trees is generated by them being transported home from the place where they are sold, while artificial Christmas trees are impactful during production. 85% of the total emissions generated during the product’s life-cycle come from production, while 8% comes from transporting it from China to Montreal. The “production”, the growth of real Christmas trees has negative emissions, since they use carbon dioxide. We must mention, that within the calculations, the length of the road to take the real trees home was specified as 5 km, but the longer the road home is, the more carbon dioxide is emitted. The real problem arises when rea Christmas tree are discarded (annually): half of them go to landfills, and only the other half is recycled. In the latter case, discarded Christmas trees end up as chips, which have a wide range of industrial usages.
We wish to also express in numbers how much carbon dioxide is generated during these processes: during their entire life-cycle, the amount of carbon dioxide generated by a real Christmas tree is 3,1 kg per year, while the amount generated by an artificial Christmas tree is 8,1 kg of CO2 per year. In comparison, the carbon dioxide of cars registered in the EU as new during the year 2018 is about 120 g/km, according to an article of The World Economy. This means that during its entire life-cycle (determined at 6 years), an artificial Christmas tree produces an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to about 402.5 km travelled by car. As such, the emissions of an artificial Christmas tree can be countered in a rather short period of time via carpooling or other, more environmentally friendly means of transport.
We must emphasize that in this case, the life-cycle assessment method has certain deficiencies, certain limits. The method does not account for some circumstances and/or factors, like the soil erosion prevention effect of planted trees, or that artificial Christmas trees can emit dioxins during use, as well as during their treatment (incineration) as waste. Meanwhile, real pine trees use different amounts of carbon dioxide depending on environmental factors (soil quality, number of sunny hours in a day, rain quantity), not to mention the latent effects of artificial fertilisation. Regarding the preservation of the ecosystem’s quality, we must mention the ever growing need for agricultural fields, however, tree plantations are usually located in areas where agricultural production is not possible. Finally, let’s not forget that the study’s results only cover Montreal, and they may differ in another country, a different location. For example, due to the differences in waste management methods and transport distances.
All in all, we can say that from the point of view of using resources and limiting climate change, buying a real Christmas tree is more ideal, while from the point of view of preserving the ecosystem, an artificial Christmas tree is the better choice. If you choose the latter, you can reduce the environmental impact level with about 20 years of use as compared to a real Christmas tree. It’s obvious that there is no clear winner, however, we must acknowledge that other activities, such as driving, have a much larger impact on our environment.