Every year we hear the debate. Is it better to have a real tree or an artificial one? As is typical, this is not a simple question and answer. You have to consider where you are? Can you go into the woods and cut a naturally grown tree down yourself? Or, do you purchase one from a tree nursery where they practice extensive pesticide and fertilizer use? Do you buy an artificial tree one year, only to toss it and buy a new one the next?
And how do we define better? Human health? Climate change? Resource depletion?
A study by the Montreal consulting firm ellipsos sought to answer these questions. Their study used Life Cycle Assessment methodology which examines the potential environmental impacts over the entire life cycle. Which means that it includes aspects such as extraction and processing of raw materials, transportation and distribution, use, and disposal. The one downside, they, not surprisingly since they seem to have taken it upon themselves to do the assessment, focused on Montreal. Therefore, there are some limits to how far the results can be applied.
A few of the details they included were the average life span of an artificial tree is 6 years in North America (I’ve had mine for 11, I mean really, what are people doing to their tree that they need to replace it after six years?). The tree nursery was 150 km from Montreal. The artificial trees were manufactured in China and shipped by boat and train to Montreal via Vancouver. Obviously, there would be a change if you are shipping them to another location. Or if the farm is closer or further away.
So, with all this in mind, which one is better?
Each year, accounting for a six year life span for the artificial tree, the artificial tree has three times more impacts on climate change and resource depletion. The impact on human health, which includes factors like toxicity, respiratory effects, and ozone layer depletion, is about equal between the two. So, real is better right? Not if you consider ecosystem quality. What would be on that land, if it was natural instead of a tree nursery? Then the artificial tree is almost four times better.
So, in the end you need to decide what the priorities are. As a kid, we got an artificial tree pretty early on due to some pretty nasty allergies in the house. My parent’s still have that tree. They have definitely kept it past the 20 year mark where the artificial tree becomes a better solution than real in terms of climate change as well as ecosystem quality.
I have a few more years to go on my tree, but it doesn’t show any signs of failing me. The only thing I did do was replace the box that was falling apart, with a Christmas tree bag. It is heavy canvas and has a zipper, which also helps to keep the spiders from overwintering in the tree. I wonder how long I need to keep the bag to make it a positive choice.