Which Is Greener?: Artificial vs. Real Christmas Trees

A lighted Christmas tree.
What You'll Need
What You'll Need

As the holiday season approaches, millions of people will put up a Christmas tree as part of their seasonal décor. Many may not even consider the ecological impact their tree of choice might have, but as people become more environmentally conscious, the decision of whether to choose a real or artificial tree is something to take into account.

Only a few decades ago, real trees were the only option for those who wanted to participate in the common tradition of bringing a tree indoors and adorning it with decorations. Back then most people would trek out into the woods, select a tree, and chop it down. Lots of people still continue this custom, but virtually all real Christmas trees are bought from farmers at various lots and stores. Approximately 30 million real trees are used in the United States every year.

Artificial trees have become very popular over the years. They were first produced in the 1930’s by a toilet brush manufacturer. Since that time, many people have opted for the convenience and cost-effectiveness they offer. It is estimated that more than 50 million artificial trees will be used this holiday season.

So which evergreen is greener? It is important to consider several factors to make that determination.

The Benefits of Choosing a Real Tree

A couple of kids choosing a Christmas tree at a Christmas tree farm.

One of the major reasons many folks opt for a real tree is that they simply smell nice. There is something refreshing about the subtle scent of pine filling the house at Christmas time. It takes about seven to 10 years for a pine tree to grow from a seedling to around eight feet tall. Therefore, fields of Christmas trees provide habitat for birds and small animals.

Real trees are environmentally friendly in that they are recyclable. There are more than 4,000 tree recyclers throughout the country. They provide services that enable over 90 percent of discarded trees to become mulch or to be used to prevent erosion. Live trees also generate oxygen and fix carbon in their branches and soil. As long as tree farmers are growing trees in a sustainable way, by planting one to three seedlings for each tree that is chopped down, the crops of trees offer numerous environmental advantages.

Real Trees Have Some Drawbacks

When looking at the downside of bringing a real tree into your home, consider the effort involved in caring for it. As the needles dry out they fall on the floor and any other surface nearby. Unless you want all those needles to get tracked throughout the house, it is necessary to sweep or vacuum regularly.

Real trees also require water or they will dry up and look unhealthy and unattractive. This might not be a big deal for some, but it can be quite a chore for those who have trouble bending over or remembering to water.

Other factors to consider are the energy it takes to plant, care for, and harvest a crop of trees year after year. Resources used to transport the trees vary depending on how far they must travel. Most tree farms use pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that can be toxic to humans and animals as well as the environment.

The Advantages of an Artificial Tree

An artificial Christmas tree assembly with lights.

The main motivation for purchasing an artificial tree is convenience. They are usually easy to assemble and many varieties come pre-lit so that the time spent winding lights around the tree can be used to kick back and enjoy the glow of the finished product.

Additionally, there is no watering involved and no dry pine needles to clean up. When the holiday season is over, they are easy to pack up and store for the following year. There is no need to waste valuable resources needed to harvest a crop of trees every year.

Another consideration is the expense. Artificial trees are less costly because once they're purchased, they can be used year after year. Many people would rather pay a little more upfront and save money in the long term.

The Downside of Artificial Trees

The majority of artificial trees are made from metal and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is non-recyclable and non-biodegradable. Once the trees are thrown away, they end up in landfills where they are unable to break down like a real tree would. PVC releases chemicals into the soil which has a negative impact on living things and the environment.

More than 80 percent of artificial trees are made in China in factories that pollute the air and water and are then shipped to the United States and other countries. While shipping has not been shown to have a significant impact on the environment, it does contribute to the overall ecological footprint.

Economic Concerns

A Christmas tree farm.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are over 100,000 people employed at tree farms across the nation. More than 350 million trees are grown at these farms, which help to preserve land that might otherwise be used for development. The habitat and oxygen-carbon balance that the trees provide contribute to a more environmentally friendly setting than a strip mall complete with parking lots and road ways.

What Science Says

A peer reviewed study found that artificial trees have a slightly higher environmental impact. Another study conducted in Montreal concluded that an artificial tree would have to be used at least 10 to 20 years to be more environmentally advantageous than buying a real tree annually. The same study determined that fake trees are typically used only six years before being discarded. Studies have also shown that the distance one must travel to get to a tree lot or farm has a greater impact on the overall environmental footprint. So far there have been no studies done on the toxicity of artificial trees in landfills.

Alternatives to the Dilemma

A couple holding a potted Christmas tree and embracing in a Christmas tree farm.

When weighing the pros and cons of real versus artificial trees, it might be a good idea to contemplate some alternatives. The most obvious is to simply not put up a Christmas tree, opting instead for branches and sprigs of pine and holly to use for decorating.

Another option that many people find appealing is purchasing a live, potted tree and planting it in the spring. Depending on the situation, some people buy one each year while others use the same tree for a few years, bringing it in and out during the changing seasons.

The Bottom Line

The decision to purchase a real or fake tree is a personal one based on factors like location, time constraints, individual preferences, and economical concerns. Keep in mind that most experts agree the environmental impact of either option is not very significant in the big picture. After you've made your decision, check out some tips on selecting the right Christmas tree whether it is real or artificial.