The Great Tree Debate—Is Artificial or Real Better for the Planet?


Real or Fake Christmas Tree - Girl hanging ornament on tree

As November turns into December, living rooms turn into holiday wonderlands. They’re filled with sparkles, candles, stockings, and of course, Christmas trees. Decorating these in-house evergreens often marks the beginning of the holiday season. However, getting those trees into our homes can go one of two ways. It either involves a drive out to the Christmas tree farm where we spend a few hours analyzing hundreds of the same, yet completely different pines.

Or dad goes into the basement and returns with a duct-taped box. Then after about 30 minutes of groaning and clanking, you have something that resembles the ubiquitous holiday centerpiece known as a Christmas tree.

Now, there are many factors that go into the artificial vs. real tree debate. However, we’re going to leave the pine or no pine scent argument for another day. Today we want to focus on one thing: which is better for the environment—a real or fake Christmas tree?

For more pro-planet Christmas tips, check out the holiday page to find everything *yule* need for a planet-friendly holiday season

The benefits of a real one

Real or Fake Christmas Tree - Real

While cutting down trees isn’t typically considered the most environmentally conscious action, in the case of the Christmas tree that isn’t always true. Christmas trees are grown on farms, just like crops, and while they’re growing they absorb carbon dioxide, protect water supply, and stabilize soil. They’re meant to be cut down and renewed.

In fact according to a study by Ellipsos, a sustainability consulting firm, the largest environmental impacts of a real tree include transportation, water usage, and disposal. However, even with these factors taken into account, a real tree emits 39 percent less carbon dioxide than an artificial one.nThis is largely due to the fact that most fake trees are made of plastic.

“Real trees are a product of nature and fully biodegradable,” Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association said in a statement. “Fake trees are made of PVC plastic and steel; they are not biodegradable or recyclable and will end up in a landfill for 1,000 years.”

How do you recycle a Christmas tree?

That sad time of year has come—Christmas is over and the tree must come down. Good news is, most cities will have a curbside recycling program that allows you to simply leave your tree out to be picked up. However, you can also use your tree to start a compost pile, create mulch, or serve as a shelter for wildlife.

related: Here are 7 Ways to Make Your Gift Wrapping More Planet-Friendly

The benefits of a fake one

Now, the obvious, blaring, headlining benefit of a fake Christmas tree is that you can reuse it over and over again. You don’t have to drive to get one every year, and it can be hugely beneficial from a financial stand point. However, in order for your artificial Christmas tree to hold its own against a real one in a sustainability competition, you need to actually reuse it. For a while.

Five years to be specific, at least according to a study commissioned by the American Christmas Tree Association. The study’s findings revealed that fake Christmas trees may be environmentally preferred to real ones provided that the fake tree is used for at least five years.

“Artificial trees were looked at [in the study] for factors such as manufacturing and overseas transportation,” Jami Warner, executive director of ACTA said in a statement. “Planting, fertilizing and watering were taken into account for real trees, which have an approximate field cultivation period of seven to eight years.”

Now there is another study that suggests a fake tree must be used for 20+ years before it’s comparable to a real tree. So while the jury is out on exactly how long you need to keep your artificial evergreen, the overarching theme is that longer is better. Which means it’s worth it to invest in a high quality tree since an inexpensive one may not last the five or more years you need it too.

To reduce the footprint of your artificial tree even more, you could purchase it secondhand. This would save on shipping emissions that come with a new tree (most fake trees are made in China), and prevent it from ending up in the landfill.

Is a real or fake Christmas tree better for the environment?

The answer is…inconclusive. However, my recommendation would be this—if you need to save money, and feel that you can commit to using a fake tree for 10+ years, buy a fake tree (but try to find it secondhand if possible). If you’re physically and financially able to purchase a real tree from a local grower, then go that route. I like this option because it supports a local business, and can often be a fun activity for the whole family. However, as a city dweller who hasn’t owned a car in over five years, I understand that the convenience of a fake tree can sometimes be unmatched.

Ultimately, your Christmas tree decision is a small drop in the bucket that is the global climate emergency, so don’t fret too much about it. Select the option that works best for you, and focus on enjoying your holiday season.

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