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.


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.


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.




…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


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