Christmas trees and the environment

First published December 2009, updated November 2011

If you’re still planning your purchase of a Christmas tree, here’s some things to consider.

Fake or fir?

Which is more environmentally friendly – a plastic Christmas tree that you can use year after year or the real deal?

Many environmentally conscious people worry that buying a real tree may encourage deforestation, but most trees these days come from sustainable tree farms catering specifically to the Christmas tree industry.

The tree farms are usually reasonably close to cities, so the transport emissions related side of things isn’t too extreme either.

Additionally, fir and pine trees tend to grow very quickly and many species will thrive in very poor soils. In some parts of the world, including Australia, pine trees are considered a weed. On a chunk of land I used to own, the pines were more vigorous and prolific than the native trees.

As trees grow, they also suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While much of it re-enters the atmosphere as the tree decomposes, depending on the disposal method (such as composting), some of that carbon is sequestered in soil.

In regard to pesticide use, according to a study from NC State University it takes 1/4 of an ounce of pesticides over the life of the tree before it is harvested.

If that concerns you and you would rather a pesticide-free Xmas tree, you can always opt for an organically grown Christmas tree! Here’s a list of organic Christmas tree farms in the USA.

As for artificial Xmas trees, they are usually made of plastic and unless it’s recycled plastic, it has required a great deal of fossil fuel in its manufacture. Oil is used for not only the plastic itself and other inputs, but as these trees are usually manufactured overseas the transport emissions are quite high. 

Disposal can also be a problem once the tree gets ratty if it’s not a recyclable plastic as it can take hundreds of years to break down and will often leach toxic chemicals in the process.

Christmas tree alternatives

You don’t have to use a fir or pine – perhaps another sort of tree native to your area could be a possibility. A live one of course, one you can use over a number of years and then plant in your back yard as well. And no, I’m not suggesting reefing one out your local parklands – buy one :). Start your own family Christmas tradition in terms of the species of tree!

And remember – as there are no Christmas tree police, you don’t have to have a tree at all. The fir as a Christmas tree dates back only hundreds of years, not thousands, so it’s a relatively recent tradition.

While I’m not big on Christmas, I recognize is an important time for many, so whatever way you choose to spend the weeks ahead, may it be as peaceful as possible.. and green!

Pick up some other earth friendly holiday season ideas, including green tree decoration tips.