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Should You Choose A Real or Artificial Tree?

Should You Choose A Real or Artificial Tree?

christmastreeIt seems that the battle between real and artificial holiday trees is as old as the tree-decorating tradition itself. Artificial trees were invented in the 1930’s by a toiletbowl brush company.  That’s right, the first artificial tree was not much more than an oversized, green toiletbowl brush.  Thus, the debate between real and artificial trees began.  Which is better for the environment:  a synthetic tree made of who-knows-what that you may or may not reuse, or a real tree that must be cut down?  It is clear that both choices have environmental pros and cons, so what’s a festive, eco-conscious homeowner to do?

Many people believe that because artificial trees can be reused, they have less of an impact on the environment.  The truth is that an artificial tree has several environmental consequences even if you do keep it for a few years.  According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the average household keeps an artificial tree for about six to nine years.  As an environementally conscious consumer one may vow to keep it “forever”, but let’s be honest, one day it will probably end up in a landfill.

Most artificial trees are manufactured in China, therefore the transportation alone creates a huge carbon footprint.  The cargo ships and trucks used to transport artificial trees from China to your local store – and then your car trip to the store to buy the tree – produce massive amounts of carbon emissions.  Artificial trees are also usually made of materials such as petroleum, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or polyethylene (PE).  Polyvinyl chloride is not biodegradable, and since most artificial trees are not or can not be recycled, they will eventually make their way to a landfill to emit these hazardous carcinogens.

Of course even real trees come with their share of downfalls.  You may have to purchase a new one every year, and a visit to the nearest tree farm would still produce some carbon emissions.  Tree farms, however, are beneficial to the environment in several ways; they provide habitat for wildlife, remove dust and pollen from the air, and rid the atmosphere of carbon dioxide.  If you think cutting down a tree to take home with you is contributing to deforestation, you can rest assured.  Tree farms grow trees specifically for the holiday seasons – you can even purchase trees that are guaranteed to be grown responsibly – so you can be sure that forests aren’t surrendering their firs for your satisfaction.  Additionally, tree farms replant about one to three trees to replace each one that is cut, so the environment is constantly benefitting from living, growing trees.  Real trees are also 100% biodegradable.  According to the Sierra Club, recycled trees are used to restore sand dunes, wetlands, and fish habitat, which limits the amount of waste ending up in a landfill and benefits new life.

So, according to Sierra Club Green Home’s research, real holiday trees win the battle of the most eco-friendly tree choice.  If you’re planning on being a little more eco-conscious this season, go green (literally) with a real tree.

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Top Tips

 

  • Don’t throw it out! If you already have an artificial tree, there’s no sense in throwing it out to contribute to waste in landfills.  Get the most out of your purchase, and then when you must throw it out, you can start to purchase real trees.  If you still want a lower-impact tree try decorating with popcorn strings instead of tinsel, and omit the holiday lights.

We know you want that authentic pine scent, but if you’re still trying to wear out your old reusable one before purchasing the real thing, don’t pollute your home with artificial air-fresheners that are filled with harmful chemicals.

 

  • christmastree3Look for the seal. You can purchase trees that are certified environmentally friendly by the Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers (CECG).  They perform on-site farm inspections to ensure that growers are using environmentally conscious methods to grow their trees.  The seal also reminds buyers to recycle their trees after use.
  • Potted Trees. You can purchase potted, living plants to decorate and keep in your home through the holidays.  At the end of the season you can either plant the tree in your yard, or keep it in the pot outside to bring in and decorate again next year!

 

  • Carpool. Make your trip to the farm a family affair and try carpooling with another family to save on gas and reduce carbon emissions.
  • christmastree4Treecycle. Like we said above, recycled trees are used to restore sand dunes, wetlands, and fish habitat.  They are also used for mulch and compost.  Find a treecycling program in your area.
  • Be really green. Unfortunately the greenest option is to not have one at all.  If you’re willing to give up that tradition in the name of the environment, we recommend decorating a houseplant, a tree in your front yard, or a decorative wooden one made out of recycled materials.

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Other Considerations

 

  • Allergies. Many people choose artificial trees for health reasons.  Some people have allergies to pollen and tree sap, and although it’s not as widespread as people believe, it does happen.  According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS), of the 50,000 different kinds, less than 100 have been shown to cause allergies.  Most allergies are specific to one type or species.

_____________________________________________________________________

Benefits…

 

…to you

  • Real trees allow you to experience one of the biggest holiday traditions in a more eco-friendly way.  You will also be able to make picking your tree every year a family tradition. 
  • If you buy a potted one, you can also make planting a new tree in your yard a yearly family event.

 

…to your wallet

  • If you choose a live, potted tree you can opt to keep it in the pot all year and bring it in next season so you don’t have to continually buy new trees.
  • According to the National Christmas Tree Association a real tree can be purchased for as little as $15.  Large, full artificial trees can range anywhere from $200 to over $1000.  You would need to keep your artificial tree for a minimum of 13 years (way above the average) for it to be of any financial benefit.  So, being able to have a real tree every year would cost the same as a keeping an artificial one for nearly 15 years!

…to the earth

  • Buying a real tree would limit the carbon emissions it takes to fly, ship, and truck artificial trees from the countries where they are manufactured.
  • Real trees do not emit VOCs, while many types of artificial trees may do so.
  • A real one keeps waste out of landfills because the remains can be made into woodchips for mulch or composting.
  • Potted trees will allow you to have a real tree that you don’t have to throw away or even compost.  You can keep it in the pot until it grows too large then plant it.

_____________________________________________________________________

Further Reading

 

Composting Video

Indoor Air Quality

Healthy Lawns and Gardens


40 Responses to “Should You Choose A Real or Artificial Tree?”

  1. Benji Says:

    I think if most people knew that real trees were the more eco-friendly option, they would choose those. I think most people have the wrong idea about Christmas trees being cut down. Thank you for the info!

  2. Lilah Says:

    Great article! I though plastic trees would be more environmentally-friendly than real trees but i guess that’s not the case?

  3. Jasper Says:

    O i never thought of a plotted tree for a christmas tree before, but that’s a good idea. imagine if the rockefeller center tree in nyc was a potted tree. that would be a huge pot.

  4. Gloria Says:

    i bought a live tree about 6 years ago and ended up planting it in my front yard. It was originally only about 5ft and now its as tall as my 2-story home!

  5. J.P. Malone Says:

    I just bought a potted tree! It wasnt even expensive..it’s not very big though. I already have the perfect spot to plant it. Imagine if everyone got a potted tree and planted it! The world would be so much greener.

  6. Melissa Says:

    How about aluminum or feather Christmas trees? Aluminum is recyclable or biodegradable (only be sure it is actually aluminum). There are some attractive feather trees, but I’m not sure how animal friendly they are.

    Also, when you do get rid of your fake tree – don’t trash it! donate it.

  7. Estelle Steynberg Says:

    Or you can make a recycled tree from cardboard–several options available on line.These trees also have the advantage of being kitten friendly which is the main reason while we are choosing this option this year.

  8. Laren Says:

    Whole Foods, and other places sell live potted Rosemary plants shaped like a Christmas tree. I decorate it with necklaces I haven’t worn for years. Rosemary smells wonderful and you can trim it and use it in cooking or with other spices warmed over low heat on the stove… makes the house smell wonderful. The size is perfect for a small apt or cottage.

  9. Carrie Robertson Says:

    The article doesn’t take into account OUR Christmas tree, which is finding an abandonded artificial tree by a dumspter after last Christmas and re-using it this Christmas. Do we get green points for that?

  10. Nancy Says:

    Your article made a lot of assumptions with no data cited to back them up. Those of us who live hundreds of miles from the nearest tree farm where water is scarce would be better off buying an artificial tree and keeping it, or donating it to a charity for resale. Real trees get so dried out by the time they get here they create a fire hazard in family living rooms. Our artificial tree, purchased in 1967, is mostly wood and steel with plastic bottlebrush needles. When fully decorated, it looks very much like a pine tree. We’ll probably have it until we die, and then our kids will keep it.

  11. FuturePetVet Says:

    Hi,

    I think if people want a real tree for Christmas they should get a potted one, and plant it in their yard after the holiday. It does not make sense for thousands of trees to be cut down(they are lives too you know) for 1 month as decoration!

  12. Gail McRobie Says:

    We have been buying potted trees for 15 years. We buy a size we can plant ourselves and place it on a high stand with a Christmas cover so it seems taller. We lived in England for years and planted those trees right away. Back home in MA and CT we dug the hole while the ground was still soft before the holiday. Here in Toronto we forgot last year but with an insulating blanket kept the tree alive in its bucket for Spring planting! Live trees can only come in for a few days in cold climates so be careful…

  13. Mark Says:

    Unfortunately I live in an apartment where real Christmas trees are forbidden due to local fire codes, so a real tree is not an option. As for a potted tree, I would have no place to put it for the rest of the year (or plant it).

    What I do have is an old artificial tree, the very first one I bought, 15 years ago. Although it’s looking a bit ratty now (thanks to the depredations of my cats), it’s still serviceable, and any VOCs have most likely dissipated by now.

    When I have to replace it, I’ll most likely go looking at thrift and/or vintage stores, or perhaps eBay or Craigslist; many will have unwanted, cast-off artificial trees available after Christmas. (Some might even have a vintage, 1930s-era “toilet brush” tree, or a mid-1960s shiny aluminum tree–you never know!)

    As stated above, if you’re the crafty type, you could even make an artificial “tree” yourself; one obvious source of materials is of course discarded Christmas decorations–including bits of old artificial trees. Reduce, reuse, recycle…

  14. Geoff Says:

    Does anyone have some tips on growing a tree in a pot? Seems like you would need a pretty good “green thumb” to keep it from croaking if it’s left in the pot, either outdoors or especially indoors for a long time.

  15. Melissa Says:

    If only every holiday came with a celebration with a live tree. Think how many square miles would be allocated to grow them…a regular forest. Purely financial reasons sometimes prove the most environmentally beneficial. Everyone can’t afford to buy a live potted tree or have a spot to plant it, but that is a great option that I have done in the past.

  16. Suzanne Says:

    I agree with the other posters here. I have always thought that it was more eco-friendly to use artificial trees. In fact, I have given my friends hard times in the past for buying a real one because I thought we were taking away from the habitat and environment. Now I know I’m wrong. In a few years I’ll start buying a real tree and will spread the word to all that I know.

  17. JB Says:

    The best option is getting a tree you can replant. When I was a kid we would do this. No waste at all.

  18. Richard R. Purdy Says:

    I respectfully disagree. Because of my allergies, my wife and I have used our artificial tree for twenty eight years and have just given it to our son for his new house, buying another one (part pvc, part pe)from Classic Trees.com ourselves. We expect to use it the rest of our expectable lives and pass it on. It may have had a large footprint, but with care, that footprint gets ever smaller yearly.

  19. AlecSandra Says:

    I am one of those allergic to pine tree sap, so an artificial tree (which cost me all of thirty dollars) is what I use and will use for at least a decade, if not longer.

  20. Terri C Says:

    Education is the key here….I along with everyone else had no idea of the impact on artificial trees – ignorance is bliss but Education is best. Thank you for educating us on this issue – passing on this info is a must…I vote we should all try to educate our families and friends on this wonderful piece of infomation…I know I will

  21. MaryG Says:

    Last year we had a tree that was the cut-off top of one that my neighbor was removing from their yard. The branches were a bit sparse but we drilled small holes in the trunk and poked chopsticks in the holes……it was kinda ugly but hey it was a real tree, free, and made for a lot of laughs.

  22. Pat Says:

    Your article states that most trees don’t cause allergies, but I have never found a variety sold in our area that didn’t affect my allergies and asthma. As a matter of fact, I have never come into contact with any evergreen that didn’t cause my allergies to flare up. After several years of misery with a real tree, and then having a son with allergies, we decided to buy an artificial tree. I love it and can enjoy the holiday season without medication! My tree is now 25 years old and needs replacing. Artificial trees can be just as beautiful and if taken care of properly, can last a very long time thereby decreasing the carbon footprint. I am very conscious of the environment but sometimes you have to think of the health of your family.

  23. RickiChelle Says:

    For the last few years I’ve been getting the “waste” from the trimmed X-mas trees at a local store. It’s free & would have been thrown in the dumbster. I trim them some more & stick them in water like a flower arrangement. I arrange the smaller branches for the front door.

  24. Georgia Says:

    I bought a norfork pine in 1984 and now it is towering over my house and I hope it doesn’t fall over some day and crush my house or one of my neighbors!! What should I do?? Maybe the city will come and cut it for the centerpiece of their annual Xmas tree at city hall. Otherwise I need to start a “cut the tree fund”!!

  25. Ana Simeon Says:

    And for a potted tree that stays small and manageable – and yet looks like a real Christmas tree – buy a Norfolk Island Pine! They come in various sizes. Mine is about three feet tall and normally lives in its pot on the floor among a large group of potted plants. For Christmas, I lift it up onto a convenient side table and decorate with red and silver balls, loop a couple of lengths of LED lights around the rim of the pot.

  26. Jessica C. Says:

    I hardly think real trees are much more eco-friendly.
    My mother lives near a bunch of tree farms. When she first complained about it, my first thought was “Growing trees seems better than a lot of things they could be doing,” but then she explained that between all the pesticide and fertilizer usage (it’s hard to get trees to grow as big as most people expect them to be in a year), it’s still not very eco-friendly.
    With all the chemicals it takes to grow all these trees, I don’t think they provide a very safe habitat for wildlife, especially since most of their habitat would be removed/destroyed every December. Wildlife aren’t really going to inhabit the tree farms that I’ve seen, since they are very far from wild – row upon row of nothing but pine trees stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding mixed forests in the areas I’ve visited. I would imagine that most of these tree farms used to be forests that were removed to make room for Christmas tree monoculture.

    From what I’ve seen, Christmas tree farms crowd wildlife habitat, and while they may “remove dust and pollen from the air”, the tree farm operation would replace it with chemicals: pesticides and fertilizers.

    I think the last tip of “the greenest option is to not have a holiday tree at all” should be emphasized instead of trying to make people feel good about having a living thing cut down in the name of tradition

    Also your “Carpool with another family to the tree farm” tip seems completely nonsensical. I can’t think of a personal car big enough for two families AND two trees.

    So, worry about PVC, or worry about pesticides… one of the two will probably be on your tree.

    Doing something creative to replace a Christmas tree that doesn’t require purchasing something new every year sounds much more fun to me anyway.

  27. Benjamin Winters Says:

    Your article ignores the possibility of not buying a tree at all. Remember the order: reduce, reuse, recycle. Instead, take that money and sponsor conservation in the rainforest.

  28. David Speakman Says:

    What a very poorly researched and one-sided article.

    You obviously took a lot of time writing it, but why did you only rely on one very biased source about these trees?

  29. Junnie Says:

    I don’t think this was poorly written at all– it presents some very valuable information with a couple of good points to consider. For Ben White from above: the article DOES mention that not buying a tree at all would be the most eco-friendly thing to do. For Jessica C., I understand your argument about the pesticide part, however, there are tree farms that DO NOT harsh pesticides or fertilizers– in fact I know of two that use organic fertilizer for their trees, and it takes them more than a year to grow replacement trees, but that’s why they plant two for every one cut down. In response to your comment about carpooling to the Christmas tree lot: have you ever heard of a truck or van? My family has been carpooling with our best friend’s family for years now– we load up in their van or my family’s extended cab truck, and put the trees in the back or on the roof– it’s not unheard of. I understand larger families might not be able to do this with other large families, but it does happen.

  30. Kathy Says:

    I think this was a good article. Obviously those who read this at all are more environmentally conscious, hence, their artificial trees last much longer than the norm. This article needs to be passed on to those who do not subscribe to Sierra Club in the first place, those who don’t think twice about throwing away a perfectly usable artificial tree (referring to the person who found one in the trash!).

    As for tree farms, Jessica C. could stand to be educated a little more on the subject. Trees do not grow big enough to be cut in a year! No matter how much fertilizer is used! There are plenty of farms that do NOT use pesticides. It does not take alot of chemicals to grow trees. Also, I know of no place that has clear-cut woods to plant a tree farm. Often, a field that cannot be used for growing much else is used to grow Christmas trees. As for wilidlife, I highly doubt birds, squirrels, and other such animals care if their homes are in perfect rows or grow wild. And deer and rabbits sure don’t seem to mind living there either. My father has a heck-of-a-time keeping them away from the young trees! The tree farms are never left bare every December, because the trees are not all planted at the same time, so they are not all cut at the same time. Otherwise, the farmer would have nothing to sell the next year.

    So, if you have to have an artificial tree, make it last a long, long time. But no matter how many real trees you buy, they will never end up in a landfill. And buy local trees if they are available.

    Happy Holidays!

  31. Linda C. Says:

    This is a reply to GEORGIA: How fortunate you are to have a huge and beautiful Norfolk Pine in your yard. It breaks my heart to think that you would have someone come and cut it down. Let the tree live out its life! It is not a thing, but a living entity. If it’s healthy, it won’t come crashing down and hurt anyone or your house.
    We have been buying rooted trees for Xmas for 30 years, and we have a huge Blue Spruce next to our house that was our Xmas tree at one time. That Spruce is one of my best friends. Please think twice before cutting your Norfolk Pine. Give it a big hug,instead!
    with love to you and your Pine — Linda C.

  32. Gloria Says:

    I bought a star pine in a pot 15 years ago. For the first 3 years I brought the pot in the house, then on the 4th year I cut the top 6 ft for the house. The pot looked ratty the 5th year, so I bought a second star pine. Now, between the two of them I always have at least one nice tree every year, either with the pot or cut. Most years I have an extra cut tree to share. The rest of the year I have nice patio plants.
    Transportation costs – 5 minutes with the dolly.
    Tree costs – timed dripper irrigation, 1-14 times per week in dry season, depending on weather
    This can be done with other conifers that can be grown in pots.

  33. forestdweller Says:

    When I was growing up in the 70s, we used a branch for a Christmas tree– the same one every year. My father spray-painted it white to make it look snowy, and we loaded it up with ornaments. We loved it. When we children were a little older, we asked why we didn’t have a pine tree like our friends had, and my father explained that it was wrong to kill a tree just for a month’s decoration.

    He was right then, and even more right today. Mature trees take more carbon out of the air than young ones do, so this idea that tree farms are environmentally friendly is hogwash. Also, with more people in the world, and more farmland needed to feed them, why should we be using up more land for a monocrop? Monocrops are not useful to nature in all its diversity.

    Will the author of this article please answer to some of these points?

    Please, buy a living tree that you can plant. Or decorate your home with wreaths, or use a branch instead of a whole tree!

  34. Jay Says:

    While I can appreciate the education aspect of this topic I believe it is not best to take this article as complete gospel. It is good to know the pros and cons of this issue and consider your own situation before making a judgment of what is best rather than assuming that this information can be applied across the board. In places like Oregon, Washington and New England buying a real tree every year probably is the best way to go. But if you live in the desert southwest or Florida or somewhere that does not have many tree farms then perhaps a real tree is not the best option given transportation emissions and costs. Plus what about the emissions of chainsaws used to cut down all those trees? Buying an artificial tree does not have to be new – you can buy from Craigslist or other second-hand shops. I think this issue is a little more complicated than presented. Use your own critical thinking skills before assuming anything is 100% accurate or appropriate for your life situation.

  35. Drew Says:

    I am composting a friend’s Christmas, and I think the tree may have been sprayed with something that turned the bark green and kept the tree green much longer than usual. Has anyone heard of trees being sprayed with green pigment?

  36. Andy Says:

    last two years I have not had any christmas tree. I think thats the best way to avoid all the carbon footprint all together.
    I have a small pine (indoor decorative) in the house , it is a living tree that I decorate for christmas.

  37. Luis R Says:

    The above article makes sense if the tree farm is near you. I live in Puerto Rico were natural trees are also imported because there are no farms here to produce them. They must be imported from Canada or some US states in refrigerated containers. While the carbon footprint of the cargo ship is significantly smaller due to being much closer to the source than China, there is the added carbon footprint from the diesel generators used by the container chiller units. Many places selling the trees use the same containers for storage purposes also, so they keep the units running all the time, probably for weeks. In our case down here, it is most likely better for the environment to use artificial trees that will last many years than a natural tree each year.

  38. Natural vs Synthetic Christmas Trees: Which Is Better? » Jake and Ella Says:

    [...] so it takes quite a bit of fossil fuel just to bring them to your neighborhood big-box store, according to the Sierra Club. Also, the trees are made of plastic, meaning oil, more specifically polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or [...]

  39. Linda Says:

    After my parents passed away, I then possessed two artificial trees; one that I purchased in 1991, and theirs, purchased in 1971. They both still looked good. So I donated theirs to charity in 2006. Last season (2010) I decided that mine was “shedding” too much to keep any longer. The branches are basically, mostly bare metal now (a Martha Stewart type of washing finished it off). But what to do with it? Waste Management, our rubbish collector, supposedly can reclaim metals in trash with large magnets. The rest…well, I tried.
    My solution was to inform my adult children that we would no longer have a decorated Christmas tree as of this year. Deal. Some traditions die hard. The earth/world no longer can support the tradition of conspicuous consumption that the holiday has evolved to become over the years. And I am a religious person saying this.
    When/if they have children, the new tradition will be other, more meaningful activities. And I will continue to decorate the entrance and back of our condo with pine bows/ wreaths/ and garland from local garden centers. (At the end of the season, I clip off the wire, which is recycled, and plastic “string”, and use the boughs for mulch in my landscaping, then compost.
    So much of what we Americans think we need is just an “aping” of the European upper classes of the last centuries, e.g. large dogs as pets. But I digress…

  40. How to Recycle Your Christmas Tree (Treecycle) | MyTumTum Says:

    [...] to Earth911 and Sierra Club, there’s no clear-cut answer on whether a live Christmas tree trumps an artificial tree.  There [...]


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