Center for American Progress

It’s Easy Being Green: O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum
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It’s Easy Being Green: O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum

The debate over real Christmas trees versus artificial trees favors the real deal.

John White carries a Maine-grown Christmas tree at a tree lot in South Portland, ME. Real Christmas trees appear to have the environmental edge over artificial trees. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)
John White carries a Maine-grown Christmas tree at a tree lot in South Portland, ME. Real Christmas trees appear to have the environmental edge over artificial trees. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)

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Is a real Christmas tree or an artificial tree the more environmentally friendly option? The debate is ongoing, but there’s a large consensus that a real tree is better.

It may appear at first that an artificial tree would be a wiser choice. After all, you can reuse it, which means not having to spend money or cut down a tree year after year. But that’s not the whole story.

Artificial trees are usually made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC—a petroleum-derived plastic that unless made from recycled plastic requires oil for its manufacturing and may leach chemicals after disposal. These trees are also usually manufactured overseas so the transportation emissions are high. The National Christmas Tree Association reports that 85 percent of artificial trees sold in the United States come from China.

Not to mention that in order to make the PVC needles on artificial trees more malleable, the manufacturers may use lead and other additives that have been linked to liver, kidney, neurological, and reproductive system damage in lab studies on animals.

Real Christmas trees aren’t squeaky clean, either, since tree farmers may use pesticides or other chemicals to grow them. Most trees are harvested after 8 to 12 years and require maintenance over that period. And let’s not forget that once they’re mature, they have to be transported.

But they still have several environmental advantages over fake trees. First, most real trees are located close to those communities, so the emissions are lower than that artificial tree traveling from China.

Second, the real trees help sequester carbon dioxide while they grow. An acre of Douglas fir trees can absorb 11,308.7 lbs of carbon dioxide each year. And while some of the carbon dioxide re-enters the atmosphere as the tree decomposes, some of that carbon is sequestered in soil depending on the disposal method.

Third, the options for disposing of real trees once the holidays are over provide better opportunities to serve the environment. Some cities will collect your tree and compost it, or you can do it yourself. A tree can be turned into mulch, too, or you can replant it in your backyard. But make sure you buy a species that will work with the soil type and climate at your house, and that you care for it properly while it’s indoors.

Finally, the Christmas tree industry is fairly sustainable. The trees are often grown in lots that would otherwise not be used, and when the tree is cut down it must be replaced. Most tree farms plant one to three new trees for every one that is cut in order to maintain a constant supply, too, so the tree population is not reduced due to Christmas tree farming, but maintained, protected, and in many instances, increased.

It’s also possible to overcome the pesticide problem with real trees. Plenty of organic tree farmers exist, and one study by North Carolina State University determined that Fraser firs grown in western North Carolina used only one-fourth an ounce of pesticide over the life of the tree to produce it in the field.

It may be tempting to pick up an artifical tree this year that you can pack back into a box once the holidays are over, but the tree from the lot can be more useful and less harmful down the road as mulch, compost, or a nice decoration for your yard.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series

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