But they smell so good – are real Christmas trees a problem?

Christmas trees are everywhere

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, it is nearly impossible to ignore the decorations that pop up everywhere around the holidays. Shops, city streets and homes spend the month of December decked out with lights, garlands, and most prominently, Christmas trees. Compared to the blatant consumerism of the holiday season, Christmas trees seem so harmless and wholesome. Who doesn’t love the warm glow of the lights and of course that evergreen smell.

The Christmas tree industry is huge – over $2 billion was spent on real and fake trees in just the USA last year. In Canada that number is smaller, but ever rising – sales of fresh trees grew by over 20% in the last two years. Any industry this large has the potential for huge environmental impacts. Are real Christmas trees an environmental problem? And are fake trees any better? For consumers hoping to make conscientious decisions, it can be hard to find the kind of information that will put these questions to rest.

In writing this post I hope to dissect some facts about the tree industry, to weigh real trees against fake in terms of negative environmental impact, and to suggest ways for those of us who couldn’t feel festive without a tree to make more informed decisions.

Where do real trees come from?


Most Christmas trees are crops, grown on farms in northern temperate countries. The extent of these farms is not trivial – 28,315 hectares in Canada, 141,640 hectares in the United States, as well as the thousands of farms in Denmark that account for most of the almost 50 million trees harvested in Europe each year. Even Australia has a strong network of Christmas tree farms.

When land is converted into Christmas tree plantations, the quality and health of that space either increases or decreases in terms of factors like biodiversity, soil erosion, and carbon sequestration. Whether making a new plantation has a positive or negative effect on ecosystem health has a lot to do with what the land was used as before. Turning multi-species forests or native grasslands into monoculture Christmas tree plantations lowers the number of birds, bugs, mammals, plants, fungus and other lifeforms, which reduces the ecosystem services of the area. As well, plantations often use pesticides to prevent the spread of insects and diseases. This can hurt local biodiversity and pollute soil and watersheds.

On the bright side, when degraded land becomes a Christmas tree plantation, it can be an ecosystem upgrade. Christmas tree plantations are not any worse for the environment than farms of other crops, and they may increase overall biodiversity, including local bird diversity compared to other cropland.

Carbon and the transportation dilemma


Christmas tree plantations can actually help fight climate change and improve air quality, since converting croplands to tree plantations in temperate regions can increase carbon storage.

But before we get excited about combating climate change via supporting Christmas tree farms, we have to discuss transportation. Making a fake tree emits a lot more carbon than raising a real one, but if the real tree has to travel thousands of kilometers to reach consumers is it really the greener choice? Canadians, Americans, and Northern Europeans can usually find locally sourced real Christmas trees. For the rest of the world, purchasing a classic, iconic Christmas tree – a noble fir, fraser fir, or other evergreen – means importing from one of the countries where they grow. Canada is the world’s largest exporter of trees, shipping them mostly from the province of Québec to countries as distant as Thailand. That’s a trip of 12,338 km, which by plane would use about 148, 056 liters of fuel.

Plastic trees – maybe better?

Does this mean that a fake tree is a more environmental choice? The answer also depends on where you live. Most fake trees are manufactured in China (watch this video to see how they’re made!) and then shipped all over the world which causes heavy pollution and greenhouse gas emission. As well, a fake tree only has a lower carbon footprint if it is reused for many years – some say at least 10 or 12, due to the carbon intense manufacturing process. Lastly, while real tree farms pollute their environments with pesticides, fake trees made of PVC produce toxic waste during manufacture and can contribute to health problems related to phthalate exposure in the home.

Solutions: Get informed, and get creative


One thing that we can conclude, is that making an environmentally friendly choice of Christmas tree depends on where you are. If locally grown trees are available in your area, try to find an organic one. If not, consider buying a non-PVC fake tree that’s manufactured near you. Or, have an open mind and try to use a different tree species, one that’s local (Christmas cactus anyone?). Crafty types might try making a tree out of recycled materials. You can even decorate a potted plant, which eliminates the need to appropriately dispose of your tree.

Whether you go real or fake, recycle the tree at the end of its life – many cities have programs to turn Christmas trees into mulch or compost. Now let’s go make a difference, one Christmas tree at a time.

– By Dana Poscente, MSc BCM student and Christmas enthusiast

All images released for noncommercial reuse under creative commons

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