By Lori Brown on Nov 29, 2010

Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees

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The real versus artificial Christmas tree debate replays itself year after year. But the truth is, each option has its own place on the naughty-and-nice list.

Just a few short decades ago, displaying a Christmas tree in your living room really only yielded one option: a real pine or fir tree. That all changed when a U.S.-based toilet bowl brush manufacturer, the Addis Brush Company, created an artificial tree from brush bristles in the 1930s, acting as the prototype for modern artificial trees.

Artificial trees became increasingly popular in the late 20th century, with sales jumping to 17.4 million in 2007. Photo: sxc.hu

Artificial trees became increasingly popular, with sales jumping to 17.4 million in 2007. Photo: sxc.hu

The Pros and Cons of Artificial

Guilt. Many have made it the sole reason to invest in an artificial tree. The thought of cutting down a new tree each year can put a damper on the holidays for some.

Also, cost, convenience and environmental impact are other reasons consumers opt for an artificial tree.

Given the current economic climate, artificial trees may be especially appealing for their investment value when compared with the recurrent, annual expense of a real Christmas tree. Their convenience is also appealing to consumers as they don’t need watering, don’t leave pine needles all over the floor and transportation from tree farm to home isn’t an issue.

But many experts believe artificial trees actually have a greater negative environmental impact when all aspects of an their life cycle are considered.

Today’s artificial trees are typically manufactured with metal and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a non-biodegradable, petroleum-derived plastic. In addition, many older varieties may contain lead, used as a stabilizer in the manufacturing process.

Despite their PVC contents, artificial trees are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable, meaning they will sit in a landfill for centuries after disposal.

Furthermore, approximately 85 percent of artificial trees sold in the U.S. are imported from China, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), adding to their overall environmental footprint.

The Pros and Cons of Real

Photo: Flickr/looseends

There are about 500,000 acres in production for growing Christmas trees. Each acre provides the daily oxygen requirements of 18 people. Photo: Flickr/looseends

Approximately 33 million real Christmas trees are sold in North America each year, according to the U.S. EPA. Luckily, about 93 percent of those trees are recycled through more than 4,000 available recycling programs.

Also known as “treecycling,” the act of recycling a Christmas tree is a leading reason many experts agree they are more environmentally friendly than their plastic counterparts.

Treecycling is an easy way to return a renewable and natural source back to the environment instead of disposing it in a landfill, where decomposition rates are slowed due to lack of oxygen.

Christmas trees are recycled into mulch and used in landscaping and gardening or chipped and used for playground material, hiking trails, paths and walkways. They can be used for beachfront erosion prevention, lake and river shoreline stabilization and fish and wildlife habitat.

A single farmed tree absorbs more than 1 ton of CO2 throughout its lifetime. With more than 350 million real Christmas tress growing in U.S. tree farms alone, you can imagine the yearly amount of carbon sequestering associated with the trees. Additionally, each acre of trees produces enough oxygen for the daily needs of 18 people.

In order to ensure a healthy supply of Christmas trees each year, growers must use sustainable farming techniques. For each tree harvested, one to three seedlings are planted the following spring, ensuring a healthy supply of trees.

According to the NCTA, the Christmas tree industry employs more than 100,000 Americans, an important economic consideration in the real versus artificial debate.

Besides the aforementioned cons associated with real Christmas trees, they are farmed as agricultural products, meaning repeated applications of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers may be used throughout their lifetime. The ideal tree would be raised organically, using integrated pest management techniques rather than chemicals.

Another con associated with real Christmas trees may depend on where you live. For climates where coniferous trees don’t grow, that tree in your living room may have had to travel hundreds of miles to reach the lot, significantly impacting the environmental impact associated with travel. However, a tree trucked from a couple states away is still traveling thousands of miles less than one from overseas.

An Even Better Option

Go one step further than the real versus artificial debate and consider a living, potted tree this Christmas. Though not feasible for everybody due to climate and land availability, living trees are brought into the home for about 10 days, then replanted after Christmas. If you don’t have the land for replanting, your local parks department will likely accept your tree for planting after the holidays.

The Verdict?

So what’s the final word? Drumroll please… Real trees top our charts for holiday adornment. Even though they might shed needles on your floor, the investment in a U.S.-based product, the carbon-neutral nature of their production and their ease of recycling make them a clear winner.

[holidaySearch type="recycle" what="Christmas trees" whatlabel="Christmas trees"]

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Comments

  1. Debra Moon says

    Good article. Please consider adding to the pro’s & con’s of real trees, the number of fires and deaths caused by real trees at this time of the year due to people forgetting to water the tree(s), use the wrong lights, put the tree too close to a heating source, and many other reasons. Usually artificial trees are fire retardent.

    Thanks for your time.

    Wishing you and yours a Safe, Blessed and Merry Christmas.

  2. Mike Hovis says

    Real christmas tree farms are not the environmentally friendly industries that they seem to be. Besides the HEAVY use of toxic pesticides , they are fairly devoid of wildlife as they encompass acres and acres of land comprised of a single species. Also the trees are trimmed, and grass is mowed regularly discouraging nesting birds, and other wildlife. Real trees frequently have molds and mosses growing on the trunks and will emit spores once exposed to warm livingroom. This can cause asthma, sinusitus, and sometimes anaphalxsis in severly allergic people. I have 3 times in my life thrown out perfectly wonderful real trees just days before Christmas because it made my living space toxic and unlivable. Explain that to the kids!Choose your poison carefully!

  3. marcel says

    I am a bit puzzled by your statement “a single farmed tree absorbs more than 1 ton of CO2 throughout its lifetime”. If one tree absorbed one ton of CO2, then it would weigh at least 1 ton. In reality, the tree must be shedding 95% of that weight in the form of pine needles, bark, sap, etc. throughout its lifetime.

    Also, there is a misconception about trees locking up CO2. Sure, they store CO2 in solid form while they’re alive. But when they decompose all of that carbon is eventually broken back down and emitted back into the atmosphere as CO2 or methane. That’s the definition of carbon neutral.

    Lastly, its not clear to me which has a bigger impact: shipping a lighter plastic tree via cargo ship from China to Houston (which has a port), or shipping a heavier, real tree from Oregon to Houston by diesel truck. Boats are much more efficient than trucks, so its hard to tell which method has a bigger impact per tree.

  4. nick says

    I am a bit shocked that a earth911 website chose a real tree over a fake one. now, I’m not arguing against having a real tree, in fact my family cuts one down each year, but I am surprised with the comments that have been posted. I want to say the posters of those comments are arguing so heavily against having a real tree because they thought they were doing right by buying a fake one, but then proved wrong. But… I can’t say that for sure. I would defiantly go with a real tree that is a recyclable and a positive contribution to the environment over a tree made from harmful chemicals that is not able to be recycled.
    You can always plant more trees if you are worried about the oxygen…
    You can’t reverse pollution in the air caused by chemicals that were used to make the trees and you can’t reverse pollution from the trees sitting there in a landfill

  5. jeff says

    I cut down a real Nihilism (aka Christmas) tree each year in a national forest. I love eluding the park rangers. It’s a real life video game …. Not really. Actually, I pay them $10 for the privilige of helping them manage the forest. Tromping through the snow; dragging the tree back to the car-It’s a blast. I could care less which is more environmentally friendly. It’s a family tradition that gets us all in the spirit of the holiday.

    Ditto, my bike commute.
    20 miles each way. Over 5000 miles a year. Screw the environment. I ride because I like to ride.

    Mother earth will be here long after mankind has perished. It’s not about the environment. It’s about you saving the environment the way you want it to be saved for you, at someone else’s expense. Get over yourselves. And Merry Christmas.

  6. Jonathan says

    Sense and sensibility. For me, only a real tree will do. It’s a taste thing. I’ve seen some of these magnificent and expensive artificial trees – they look ideal from a distance. Get a bit closer and you see what they really are: fakes. For me, that’s a big let-down that only serves to heighten the worst aspects of consumerism and artifice that have grown to taint America’s Christmas. Do you want to see plastic flowers? Do you want to eat artificial food? Do you want to go to a museum full of replicas and forgeries? Go real!

  7. ernest Carter says

    Real is great for a while. They do become expensive if you what an attractive tree you can display with pride. They can be burdensome if you are in a time crunch, or one person gets stuck with the messy clean up and daily watering. As time goes on after many real trees We decided to get a pre lit artificial tree. The time up and down was reduced by an entire day and we did not have to go out in the cold and suffer the hunt for the perfect tree. The tree we got was a new natural branching pattern design and the strong limbs that are better suited for the larger ornaments sold today. It was nice to have the fresh cut tree in the house, but I would never go back. I actually think with all the chemicals that need to be used to grow those near perfect trees which every one wants, that the artificial tree is in the long run a better investment.

  8. Leslie says

    I bought a Fake tree about 20 years ago. The good thing about this particular tree is that the “needles” are made from recycled newspaper, colored green. It has held up very well, with only a few spots where the daily news is now showing thru. Maybe more tree manufacturers should be responsible and make the trees from recycled materials!!!!! The best of both worlds!

  9. Alice says

    Those arguments are not taking into consideration that I am not discarding my artificial tree after Xmas. I have my artificial tree for 6 years now and I plan on keeping it for many more. And diesel trucks transporting tons of trees in order to sell and later to recycle, and later to sell the mulch are doing as much harm as the transportation of artificial ones.
    I just think it is very sad after Xmas to look at the real (dead) trees, discarded on the streets. If the trees are made of PVC is simple to the US to solve the problem: stop importing such things from China and start buying only recycled material. It is not like is mandatory to do business like that with China.

  10. Sue says

    Hello Lori,

    I always enjoyed having a Douglas Fir or Balsam tree for the holidays. Until, I allowed others
    to influence me into purchasing an artificial tree which went against my good judgment.
    And truly, for all the wrong reasons as well.

    After reading your article; I am deeply concerned for having purchased an artificial tree that is
    a problem to the environment and the issue of proper disposal of it afterwards.

    Thank you for posting this article. It brings out many excellent points that should be considered.

  11. says

    I genuinely think that artificial trees are the way forward and considering they are so maintenance free, i’m surprised not everyone has caught on to how good they really are. I certainly won’t be wasting my time with real trees now that i have some artificial trees in my garden.

  12. Frank Porter says

    I find it amazing the the “battle” is between artificial trees and cut trees. On the birth of each of my sons I planted a tree for each of them. Apart from the huge pleasure it has given me to see these trees grow and prosper, like my sons, I see them through all the season and even when my sons and there now families cannot attend festive occasions they are here is a real sense through their “birth” tree.

    So I strongly encourage each and every person who is able to plant a tree, not just a yule tide tree but a tree for all seasons

  13. Mike says

    Earty to Marcel, abosorbing CO2 doesn’t mean it becaomes a part of the tree—it’s the air that a tree breathes in. Actually, “converts” would be a more accurate way of describing it, because the tree converts CO2 to oxygen.

    Think of it this way, we “absorb” oxygen and exhale CO2—that doesn’t mean we store it, or that it adds to our weight or that we suddenly release it all into the atmosphere when we expire. I also “absorb” a few litres of water a day, that doesn’t make it a permanent part of my body.

  14. cieslam says

    I think a lot of people make environmental decisions based on emotion and not actual numbers/fact, partly because finding those actual numbers/facts are very difficult or sometimes impossible to accurately determine. Even people’s comments to this post about the sight of dead trees thrown out supports this emotional basis of decisions. Christmas adds another element of emotion and tradition so it’s very easy to spin the argument your way. I would have liked to seen more numbers and actual methodology used by the author when calculating the life cycle costs, but I guess this was more a qualitiative exercise. How much pesticides are used on Christams trees? Was the different GHG emissions of boat vs. truck taken into account? Without actual numbers, we are still just guessing which is the better option. But the US grown tree vs. made in China can be a convincing arguement by itself in today’s economy. In all, I buy a real tree for the reasons laid out in the article and I guess it’s nice to see that decision is somewhat backed up.

  15. Julie says

    There is some emotion and tradition involved in my decision to buy a real tree each year. But I do so in the most environmentally responsible way that is available to me. I choose a local tree farmer, so I make sure that the tree is not traveling hundreds of miles to get to my house. I try my best to research to find out if pesticides are being used, and that the tree farmer is growing as sustainably as possible. My township picks up the trees for recycling, and I don’t find it sad that they are waiting to be picked up at the curb anymore then I am when I put my recycle bin out each week. Every buying circumstance allows us to evaluate our environmental impact, and I think that almost everyone on this message board is taking this opportunity to think about their purchases, no matter which kind of tree they buy.

  16. Dawn Q says

    I grew up on “Charlie Brown trees.” Going out in to the woods behind the house to find one was a family tradition. Unfortunately those woods are no longer there, but every year the Army base lets people on their huge tracts of land for that purpose at no charge!
    Thank you to Mike for his response to Marcel, who is clearly not a botanist.
    I still haven’t made up my mind on frexh vs fake though. Nothing beats the smell of a fresh spruce, but the convenience of a fake might win me over one day. I definately agree with Sophie and Leslie though. If an American company came up with a decent looking fake tree that was made out of recycled materials and/or recyclable, preferably both, I would probably buy one.
    .

  17. Sue says

    Hello Lori,

    Wow! I wasn’t aware of the pesticides associated with live trees before. That definitely is an eye opener. However, I like the idea of organic with regard to the growing of plants, trees, etc. I think it is not only beneficial to the earth as a whole, but it will make the soil less toxic for people who reside in the areas that grow crops, live trees, etc. I think the whole concept altogether is an excellent idea.

    Additionally, I never had an artificial christmas tree till someone in the family here fussed over the pine needles dropping off as the live tree starts to lose it’s freshness.Artificial ones are also loaded with not so healthy things too. I always was thrilled when I was able to go tree hunting for that special fresh Douglas Fir tree. It smelled so wonderful too. There could possibly be some good with this organic thinking.

  18. Robert says

    NO FAKE. NO CUT REAL. Christmas is great, but why have either kind of tree? You have to be a progressive thinking person to accept this idea…we project a large image of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree on a wall in the living room. Then place our own home made Christmas tree near the picture image. It looks really cool.

    We make our tree using large pieces of discarded but clean corrugated cardboard. We cut-out and assembled it to stand on its own. Our grandkids then make decorations and “spiffy it all up” for Christmas. The cardboard is recycled at the end of the season. Everyone loves to help make a Merry Christmas.
    A Christmas tree is just a “symbol” that we traditionally “decorate” in the spirit of the Holiday. But…it is becoming more about a symbol for spending money in December to support consumerism.

    Buy a potted green tree if you feel the urge to spend money! Plant it & enjoy it everyday of the year.

  19. donovan says

    why not use a real live potted tree ..buy a small to med or large if you got a pot big enough for it ..most of the pines used are capable of living all over the states

  20. rhonda says

    I agree they both have their good and bad points. i love the look and smell of a real tree, but i have cats. i don’t need a vet bill because they ate pine needles or chewed on the electrical cord. i have had the same artificial tree for 30 yrs. now and i planted a couple of live Christmas trees in my back yard (after Christmas specials). i don’t even have lights on my tree this year, just decorations my gran-daughters made for me. best tree ever!

  21. Tori says

    This year I took someone else’s artificial tree, and I feel no guilt doing this. that artificial tree has already been made and throwing it away would have been worse. So I am using it this year while she goes out to buy a real tree. It helps my budget (all my ornaments this year will be oragami because it will be cheaper) and I still get to celebrate Christmas.

  22. says

    I agree with Robert! “We make our tree using large pieces of discarded but clean corrugated cardboard. We cut-out and assembled it to stand on its own.” I would make the cardboard tree cut out then recycle it.

    Or I could get a real tree and just plant it for next year. Thanks for the great idea.

  23. says

    I bought a tree for a dollar after Christmas a few years ago at a grocery store cause I felt sorry that it was left there. I repotted it and have used it for the last two years. It is a little weird looking cause I am not a tree farmer and am allergic to pine needles. So I did not trim it to look perfect. But with the economy the way it has been and my teens not really wanting to help decorate the tree, it made sense to use this one. And it only costs a dollar and no one pesticided it to death as I am allergic to poisons. I have asthma. I just bring it in for a few weeks then put it back outside. No muss, no fuss, although there was a moth hitchhiker.

  24. Green Star Lilly says

    For the last five years I have used a vintage silver tree. I Love It! It’s a “REUSE” idea. I like the editor’s idea of buying a potted tree & planting it after wards…would you end up with a forest? Maybe start donating them after 2nd or 3rd year. I think this year I will stick w/ my vintage & next year if economy gets better I will splurge on potted tree!

  25. Bill says

    Mike Hovis comments above that he is allergic to trees and other natural lifeforms. That’s sad, but certainly not a reason for most others who can have plants in their home. While a large commercial Christmas tree farm is likely committing the environmental sins as he described, try getting a tree for a local grower, possibly organic. Pine trees have few natural pests and are not sprayed heavily, if at all. I think reusing an old fake tree or getting a locally grown one (in a pot, is a good idea!) is a lot better for the environment then adding to the demand for synthetic trees.

  26. Ashli Aaron says

    You know, this year I looked up Christmas Tree Alternatives and found a lot of very handy and attractive reusable ideas. We haven’t had a Christmas tree of any variety for the past few years, but this year I felt like I wanted one so the option we chose was using some green construction paper and folding it to make it look like leaves. The source for this was: http://greenbrokelivinginkits.blogspot.com/2010/12/substitute-christmas-trees.html

    It worked out really well and we were even able to put lights on it! Next year, we might make a mobile but this is definitely reusable. And it was a fun family experience!

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