As a child growing up in suburban southern California, there was no holiday tradition more important than the faux-winter ritual of picking out a Christmas tree at our community college’s tree lot. I was thrilled by the heart-stopping spectacle of wrestling the tree onto the station wagon roof, inching along the freeway’s slow lane, and then hauling our catch into the living room where it would invariably be too tall, eliciting not-exactly-PG-13 curses from my dad, who was in charge of sawing it down to fit.
The smell of pine filled the house. So too did the dying needles, and the constant fear that if we left the twinkle lights plugged in, the whole thing might go up like the fire hazard that it was. Each Christmas tree had its own drama, stories passed down year to year in a shared ritual of Christmas anxiety gilded by time into family lore. My father, who shouldered most of the labor, once suggested buying an artificial tree. We called him out for the vulgar suggestion of convenience over tradition, and he never brought it up again.
But when I moved to Asia as a foreign correspondent, convenience won out. My new family may not have stories about losing a tree on the freeway ride home, or the time it nearly did burn down, but we do have memories of all the different countries where we have performed our own ritual of unpacking the plastic branches and setting up our own traditions.
It turns out, we are not alone. In 2021, 84% of American households planning to display Christmas trees opted for artificial ones, according to a Nielsen survey commissioned by the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA). That figure hasn’t shifted more than a few percentage points in the ten years since the organization started the survey, according to Mac Harman, a founding member of the ACTA and the C.E.O. of Balsam Hill, an artificial tree company. Apparently, the time-worn tradition of picking a tree from a lot may be more Hollywood manufactured than real.
But this year, as I carefully unfurled the bound boughs of polyvinyl pine needles, I started wondering if I should go back to the real thing. Now that I’m a climate correspondent, I am much more aware of the impact of all my consumer decisions on our planet. It’s hard to imagine something less sustainable than a plastic Christmas tree that’s only used once a year.
Christmas in general is a high carbon emissions holiday, according to Paris-based carbon accounting firm Greenly. This year the organization calculated that the typical U.S. Christmas celebration at home is responsible for 750 kg of CO2—4.6% of a family’s annual emissions and 14 times as much as a typical evening. Gifts, especially electronics, are responsible for most of the emissions, followed by the typical meat-and-alcohol heavy meal. (European family Christmases have a lighter footprint, emitting 400 kg of CO2, largely because they give less extravagant gifts.) The tree and decorations clocked in at 2.6% of total U.S. household Christmas emissions—that comes out to 19.5 kg of carbon emissions. This may not seem like very much—the equivalent of a couple of hamburgers—but in the spirit of gifting to the planet, is there a way to make a more sustainable choice, aside from the climate-scrooge option of doing nothing at all?
In 2018, the ACTA (which is real vs. artificial tree agnostic) commissioned a life-cycle assessment of the carbon footprint of both real and artificial trees. An artificial tree’s lifetime carbon emission averages around 18.6 kg, including the fossil fuels that go into the plastic, manufacture, shipping (mostly from China), and transport from point of sale. For farm-grown trees the ACTA assessment looked at greenhousing, watering, and fertilization over 7-10 years, as well as chainsaw oil, labor, and transport. The clincher is disposal: as trees grow, they capture carbon, but if they are burnt instead of composted, most of that carbon will be released, meaning natural trees can emit anywhere from 5 to 50 kg of CO2.The report concluded that when it comes to environmental impact, artificial trees break even with farmed trees if they are reused for at least five years.
According to the Nielsen study, 75% of American respondents who buy artificial trees intend to use them for five or more years. Nearly 50% said they would keep theirs for at least ten. I’ve had my tree for 12 years. And while it lists to one side because of a cracked base—victim of an impromptu dance party—and some of the branches have gone bald from excess ornamenting, I’m going to hold on to it for as long as it stands upright. After all, each scar has its own memories, and that is what tradition is really about.
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