Real vs. Fake Christmas Trees – Which is Greener?

Yesterday, I passed by a lot that was being prepared to sell Christmas trees. Yep, it’s time to start thinking about them.


In my entire life, there have only been two Christmases where I haven’t had a real tree. We couldn’t afford one our first year married so we had this tiny little borrowed table top artificial Christmas tree. The next year, we bought a real tree, some lights, and a few ornaments. Problem was, we absentmindedly bought white strings of lights (see picture), and couldn’t afford to buy any others. So we went with it. The other time we had an artificial tree was when we went to my in-laws in Arizona for Christmas so we just put up a borrowed artificial tree at our house.

But now, with all the greening I’ve been doing around here lately, I started to wonder. Which is greener? A real tree or an artificial tree? I did a little research, and I found that there are arguments for both sides out there. But I was only swayed by one of them.

Pro Real Christmas Tree
  • Christmas trees are grown on tree farms – they are considered an agricultural product. They are sustainable, and for each tree that is cut, at least one more tree is planted.
  • Tree farms are usually planted on soil that doesn’t support other types of agriculture. 
  • In the US there are about 1 million acres dedicated to tree farming. Each acre provides enough oxygen for 18 people. 
  • Tree farms reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and help counter-balance this global warming thing we keep hearing about.
  • Real trees are easily recycled*. Many communities offer curbside pick up in the weeks following Christmas and turn the trees into mulch.
  • Every state in the U.S. grows Christmas trees. It is possible to get a tree that is locally grown.
  • Unless you’re allergic to them, real Christmas trees are better for your family’s health once they are inside the home. Fake Christmas trees contain PVC.  “According to the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition, the manufacture of PVC creates and disperses dioxins, which include the most toxic man-made chemical known. Released into air or water, dioxins enter the food chain, where they accumulate in fatty tissues of animals and humans, a potential risk for causing cancer, damaging immune functions and impairing children’s development.” (source – christmastree.org).
  • Fake Christmas trees are not recyclable and will sit for hundreds of years in a landfill leaching PVC, lead and other contaminants into the soil.
Pro Fake Trees
  • Fake trees are reusable. If taken care of properly, fake trees can last decades.
  • No real trees are harmed in the making of an artificial tree.

That’s about all there is for the pro fake. But there are artificial tree websites out there that can take those two facts and spin them into paragraphs of environmental benefits.

It’s easy to conclude that I come down on the real tree side. The argument that no real trees are harmed in the making of an artificial tree makes no sense since real Christmas trees come from sustainable tree farms that are helpful to the environment.

And sure, a fake tree can be used for decades, but that’s decades of chemicals and toxins floating around the air in your home, around your children and pets, that will ultimately end up in a landfill. Plus, they are usually made in some foreign country by factory workers who breath this stuff in constantly and get paid very little to do so. Then they need to be shipped half way around the world.

There are other pro/con reasons to have a fake Christmas tree – they are more cost effective, they don’t shed needles, they can come pre-lit, etc. But for purely environmental reasons, real Christmas trees beat them hands down.

* If your community doesn’t offer pick up of trees, you can go to the National Christmas Tree Association’s website, input your zip code, and find out where you can take your tree for recycling.


    • Despairing
    • November 13th, 2008

    Or you could follow my example, shout “Bah! Humbug!” to the whole thing, and refuse to put any decorations up at all!

    On the other hand, I don’t have kids who would never forgive me…

    • Adam Shake
    • November 14th, 2008

    I’ve been wondering about this for a while and actually felt a little environmental guilt last year when I bought a live tree. (But I bought it from the Lions Club, so felt better about it)

    But now I know that I can go out and get a live tree and feel good about it.

    Thanks for clearing up, what to me, has been a nagging question.

    Adam

    • Roy
    • November 14th, 2008

    I’d probably do the fake thing, but my wife is adamantly against it. Christmas trees are a huge business in Oregon – many of the farms use helicopters (time is money) during harvest, so they can fill the trucks faster.

    • EcoGreenBags
    • November 16th, 2008

    It seems to make sense that fake trees might be greener, but you’re right, they aren’t. If you already have one, sure. If you don’t have an artificial one, pass. The cleaning aspect alone (how do you clean a fake Christmas tree?) is something to consider.

  1. There’s actually a con for real christmas trees that you didn’t list… Actually, I’m not sure how prevalent it is*, but I’ve noticed people driving home with trees that have this downside: They’re wrapping real christmas trees in plastic for portability.

    * Our family doesn’t observe Christmas because it’s pagan, so I’ve never personally bought a tree for it. Of course, this is an entirely different aspect of the tree story. I just mention to explain my lack of experience with tree buying.

    • Natalia
    • December 13th, 2010

    Got to this link from recent entry on Mother News Network. We’ve been debating this at my folks’ house (where everyone comes for at least 1 day, mostly a week or longer).

    A point against real trees is that they ARE grown with sprays and pesticides, unlike the bliss-filled farms I imagined.

  1. December 3rd, 2009