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Is a real or artificial Christmas tree more eco-friendly?

This time of year, the question is almost always asked. Is a real or artificial Christmas tree the most environmentally responsible?

There are many reasons why real Christmas trees are more eco-friendly, but this year they may be even more popular. The Christmas Tree Promotion Board reports an increase in sales because families looking for safer activities during COVID-19 can get together outside to select a tree.

Real trees are both a renewable and biodegradable natural resource. On average, it takes about seven years to raise a Christmas tree to marketable size. During that time, it is absorbing carbon dioxide and filtering the air of particulate matter and releasing oxygen. It is also providing watershed protection and habitat for birds and other wildlife. Christmas trees are planted and raised as a crop by tree farmers. Unlike other row crops, a Christmas tree plantation remains green and growing year-round. If there was no market for real Christmas trees, that land would probably be developed for something else. For every Christmas tree that is harvested nationally, two to three seedlings are planted.

To make your choice even more sustainable, select a tree from a local Christmas tree farm instead of purchasing one from a big-box store that trucks them in from across the country. There are many local tree farms that can be found near Kansas City, nationwide and beyond at Pick Your Own Christmas Tree.

In contrast, artificial Christmas trees are made primarily of metals and plastics, which are all non-renewable resources. The plastic material, typically polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a potential source of lead. The potential for lead poisoning is considered high enough that California requires a warning label on all artificial trees made in China, and an estimated 85 percent of artificial trees are made in China. Additionally, these trees must be transported 8,000-plus miles to their U.S. destination, which emits additional CO2.

On average, an artificial tree is used for seven years before it ends up in the landfill. So, if a tree is displayed for one month per year, that means it will have been used for a total of seven months, and will remain in a landfill indefinitely. Even if it were to be used for 20 holiday seasons, it’s still going to end up in a landfill far longer. In contrast, a real tree can be composted, submerged in ponds for fish habitat or chopped into wood chips.

If you don’t want to cut a tree, another good option is to buy a live tree to plant in your yard after the holidays. A live tree will require more care and will only be able to be in the house for a few days. It’s best to dig a hole before the ground freezes, and then be prepared to plant it the day after Christmas.

If someone in your family is allergic to evergreen trees, and you can’t imagine Christmas without a tree, another choice is to purchase a used, artificial tree from a thrift store, and save it from the landfill for a few more years. When the tree is no longer usable, the branches can be cut and repurposed into other decorations like swags, wreaths and garland, further delaying its final destination.

Photo: Alabama Extension / CC

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3 years ago

I agree on some things but I don’t like the idea of growing living trees just to cut them down. I don’t like plastic but an artificial tree in our house will last forever. If people are only using it 7 years on average then that’s appalling.
If I upgraded to a different size tree due to moving I always resold it to someone who would put it to good use.
With living trees you also have a higher risk of fire when it gets dry and dealing with the mess it creates. It does smell nice though.
So I guess there’s pros and cons to both.

Cain Mark
3 years ago

Thank you for sharing this interesting read on this topic. I like the way you express your thoughts on this. Indeed there would be different thoughts but this explanation on Christmas trees is worthy of a read.

3 years ago

Living in a rural area, we’ve always cut down a “red cedar,” the common name for Juniperus virginiana, which is native but very invasive in area grasslands. While it is “stickier” than firs and pines sold commercially, it is quite fragrant and cutting it clears them from fields and prairies where they are not needed or wanted, and provides good spawning habitat in a pond after their use as a Christmas tree. Alternatively, they can be burned down to coals, extinguished with water and the black charcoal left over is “biochar” that fixes the carbon in a very stable form that keeps it from returning to the atmosphere for centuries and can be mixed into the soil or used on trails as a better alternative to wood mulch, which holds water. Oh, yes, did I mention that they are free?