Christmas Trees: Real or Artificial, Which is better for the environment and why

Christmas Trees: Real or Fake, Which is better for the environment?

This debate rages every year, but it's really not so difficult to figure out, when you apply life cycle analysis to your own situation.

Facts about real, live Christmas trees

Pesticide use:

Thanks to their attraction to wildlife, like birds, that next in the trees, as well and snakes, toads and rodents that live on the ground beneath the trees, Christmas trees rarely need pesticides. The birds and other animals feed on the bugs and pests!, keeping the pest population in check.

Oxygen

While they are growing, Christmas trees do produce oxygen and take CO2 out of the atmosphere.  Each acre of Christmas Trees produces enough oxygen to meet the daily requirements of 18 people. In one year one acre of Douglas Firs can absorb about 11,300 pounds of carbon dioxide.
What about cutting down the tree. Well, remember, the tree was planted by a farmer for the purpose of being harvested. It is not a naturally growing tree that was removed. Before the farmer planted the tree, the fields was almost always an barren, empty field or lot.

Facts about Artificial Trees

What gets put into the air during the manufacturing of an artificial tree? Most Christmas trees are produced in China, a country well known for it's lack of concern about the environment. China's agreement under the Paris Climate Accord even allows them to continue to INCREASE their pollution until 2030! So, of course, there is air pollution and waste created as industrial by-products from manufacturing Christmas trees. Most artificial trees contain PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and 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. Dioxins enter the food chain, where they accumulate in fatty tissues of fish and other animals and humans, increasing the potential risk for causing cancer, damaging immune functions and impairing children's development.

In 2018, the American Christmas Tree Association (obviously a pro-live tree lobby) released a study that claims that artificial trees are more eco-friendly if purchasers use them for more than five years. Click here to view a copy of the full LCA Christmas Tree report .

Issues affecting both real and fake trees

Fire hazards?

Live Christmas trees are only a substantial fire risk if they are allowed to dry out or the owners are careless and overload electrical outlets or have faulty wiring. And that can produce a hazard with an artificial tree, too.

Get a fresh tree, even cutting your own tree so you ensure the tree was not sitting on the lot for a long time, and keep water in the pan, checking it every day.

You can even get an automatic and easy watering device, like those shown at right.

Artificial are less flammable than real trees, but once they do catch fire, produce more toxic fumes!

Disposal

Artificial trees must go to the landfill. But real trees can be composted and turned into mulch or used as wildlife habitat. This isn't theoretical: almost every community in the U.S. has a tree collection and recycling program.

Lifespan

Perhaps the one offset to the debate is longevity. If you purchase and artificial tree and you keep it and use it for 10 years or more, each year you use it further reduces it's total impact on the environment. Statistics show most people only keep their artificial tree for 6 years... but I know people who have had theirs for over 12 years and going.

Transportation

Both artificial and real trees must be transported from their source (whether it is a factory or a field) to your house. And of course, that consumes fossil fuel and produces pollution. An artificial tree makes a much longer trip, but only does it once, and much of it is by ship, using a much smaller amount of pollution (per tree) than a truck. Real trees must be transported every year from fields in Michigan, Maine, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Oregon, etc. to a store near you. Of course, if you go cut your own tree from a nearby farm, you almost eliminate that pollution.

Alternatives

You can buy a living, rooted tree (usually called "balled & burlapped trees") that you can plant after the holidays.

The bottom line

Generally speaking, best to worst, for the environment is as follows:

  1. Living tree planted after the holidays
  2. Live tree you cut yourself at a nearby farm (see this website to find a local choose and cut Christmas tree farm )
  3. An artificial tree, especially one made in a U.S. or EU factory, that you keep and use for 8-10 years or more
  4. A live tree purchased already cut, from a distant farm
  5. Artificial tree from a factory in Asia, kept for only a few years

For comparison of real vs. fake trees from a consumer perspective, see this page .