Real vs artificial Christmas trees – which are more environmentally friendly? As a kid, I grew up with the joy of real cut Christmas trees every December. I have vivid memories of helping Mom decorate, Dad lifting me and my brother (we alternated years) to put the angel on top, and even playing with my Barbies in the branches (#imagination).
Years later, I moved out of the house and learned just how much of mess a cut tree can create! I was constantly watering and vacuuming up after my little apartment tree, not to mention trying to figure out the best option for recycling in a big city… acquiring, maintaining, and recycling a Christmas tree can be a real chore!
Once I graduated college, I started to become more interested in the environment and how my purchasing decisions can have either a positive or negative impact (this was the year I went vegan – I’ll save that story for another post). It was around this time during the holidays that I started paying attention to the pros and cons of Christmas tree options.
I hadn’t passively heard any convincing research that made me develop a strong opinion one way or the other until recently when I consciously chose to dive deep into researching real vs artificial Christmas trees. Read on to find out what I learned and what we are choosing to decorate with this year (you might be surprised!).
Artificial Christmas Tree – Pros and Cons
- Cost (potentially) – According to 2011 data from Neilsen Research via ACTA, the average cost of an artificial tree was $78 and the average cost of a real tree was $48. If you were to fall into either of those averages, then using your artificial tree for just 2 or more seasons would make it a better financial investment.
- Convenience – With artificial trees, you don’t have to deal with transporting a big tree, cleaning after pesky needle droppings, watering regularly, or recycling each season. It’s much more convenient to just pull the tree box out from the garage, assemble, and enjoy.
- Longevity – Many artificial tree manufacturers boast impressive 20+ year guarantees for their products. William Paddock, Managing Director of WAP Sustainability Consulting encourages consumers who choose to purchase artificial trees to do their best to use them for 9+ years to minimize their negative environmental impact (NCTA).
- Production Materials
- PVC – Most artificial trees are made from PVC – petroleum derived plastic. This is a non-renewable and non-recyclable raw material that emits a number of airborn pollutants including dioxin, a known toxin and carcinogen (toxipedia). Even artificial trees that pop up in an “eco friendly christmas tree” search on Amazon are made from PVC plastic, which is not an “eco friendly” material. Make sure you educate yourself before assuming you’re making a healthy purchase.
- Lead – Lead makes plastic more flexible, can reduce the risk of fire, and stabilizes artificial color in PVC products (WebMD). Lead in PVC products disintegrates into lead dust that can become airborn and inhaled by yourself or other family members. It isn’t clear if the amount of lead dust emitted from artificial trees could cause meaningful harm, but it is known that lead poisoning can lead to brain and nervous system damage, especially in young children (RTK Environmental). It’s a good idea to keep children under the age of 6 away from the artificial tree and wash your hands thoroughly after assembling.
- Landfill Pollution
- Because PVC is a non-recyclable material (made from non-renewable resources), artificial trees will eventually find themselves taking up space in landfills where they will not biodegrade.
- Most of the production of PVC artificial Christmas trees happens in China, which requires additional energy and resources to transport these goods to other countries like the USA.
- Production Materials
Real Christmas Tree – Pros and Cons
- Energy – The amount of energy required to grow 6 real Christmas trees is equivalent to the amount of energy required to create 1 artificial tree (Managing Director of WAP Sustainability Consulting via ACTA).
- Recyclable – Cut trees can be recycled and turned into mulch for gardening or wood chips used in playgrounds and hiking trails. If you do recycle, remember to remove all ornaments and any traces of tinsel (they can damage wood chippers and end up costing your community more money instead of helping), and avoid flocking (fake spray-on snow) your tree which can contaminate mulch with toxic chemicals (Earth911).
- Air Purification – Over the course of its lifetime, a farmed tree will absorb more than 1 ton of CO2. With close to 350 Christmas trees growing in the US at any given time, this fact can equate to meaningful carbon sequestering (Earth911).
- Economics – There are close to 15,000 Christmas tree farms employing 100k full and part-time Americans annually (NCTA).
- Pesticides – Christmas trees are farmed just like other agricultural crops where pesticides might be used – it is always best to opt for organic if possible before bringing pesticides into your home (NCTA).
- Inconvenience – Cut trees require manual transport, regular watering, and can be messy when needles get dry and fall from the tree.
- Transportation – If you don’t live in an environment where coniferous trees will naturally grow (hello fellow Southern Californians), you are likely purchasing a tree that had to be transported from miles away. The most sustainable option is your local option (in almost all categories of consumption!).
- Temporary – 33-36 million cut Christmas trees are distributed in America each year (EPA) and enjoyed for only a handful of weeks before being disposed of. It would obviously be better for the environment to allow those trees to remain planted and reach proper maturity than cutting them down prematurely and displaying them temporarily in our homes.
Real vs Artificial Christmas Trees – Which is better?
The answer to this question is not black and white as it depends on the energy required for transportation, length of ownership, and method of disposal.
There have been studies completed by a handful of consulting firms to determine how many years of artificial tree ownership would outweigh the energy required to purchase a cut tree each year. PE international estimates 4+ years, while WAP Sustainability Consulting estimates closer to 6-9 years (NCTA).
Ultimately, those estimations can increase if the artificial tree owner is compared to a family always purchases local, organic cut trees and recycles them responsibly each year.
The sad truth is, artificial trees – regardless of years of ownership and use – will at some point find themselves taking up space in a landfill where they will not biodegrade. In my opinion, that fact (especially when considering the other cons) has me convinced that it’s best to avoid purchasing artificial Christmas trees if possible.
Do you already own an artificial tree? Keep using it! Just make sure (if you can) to dust it off outside before assembling to best avoid adding pollutants to the air in your home.
Even so, we are surrounded by so many items in our home that contain similar pollutants (furniture, electronics, paint, commercial cleaning products, etc.) that displaying an artificial Christmas tree in your home for one month of the year likely won’t contribute too much additional damage comparably. Just make sure to add live plants that are good at absorbing those pollutants from the air and use eco-friendly cleaning products whenever possible.
Eco-Friendly Christmas Tree Alternatives
So what type of tree are we choosing this year?
Neither! We’re opting out!
I personally can’t justify buying into either option, so instead of buying a traditional tree this year, we’re going to try one (or more) of these eco-friendly options:
- Fallen Branches/Clippings – Place and decorate aromatic evergreen branches in vases (like I did last year).
- Potted – Buy a living, potted Christmas tree (or trees) to store indoors during the holiday season. After the holidays are over, you can either plant it in your yard, store it in a pot outside (save it to be used again next year!), or donate it to be planted somewhere else in your neighborhood.
- If evergreens aren’t native to your area, consider an alternative style of tree to keep potted indoors to decorate. I am guilty of stringing lights from my dracaena trees in the past – still feels festive every time!
- DIY Garland – Create your own garland out of plant materials from your yard (we have a ton of beautiful eucalyptus in the canyon near our house). I might try this garland DIY from my friend Amy’s blog at Homey Oh My.
- Wood – Plenty of charming wooden Christmas tree options that you can decorate and reuse for years.
- Cardboard – Decorate a side table with recycled cardboard trees that can be used year after year.
- Vintage – Love the look of tinsel? Find a great vintage tinsel tree at a local thrift shop or online.
Other ways to keep your Christmas “green”
With all of this said, a 2008 study by ACTA noted that a family’s tree purchase contributes to a minimal portion of their annual environmental impact. So while it is important for us to consider responsible consumerism when it comes to our tree selection, responsible consumerism is just as, or more important when it comes to any purchase decision during the holidays.
The volume of US household waste between Thanksgiving and New Years generally increases about 25% percent, equating to 1 million TONS of extra waste (EPA). This year, let’s all do our part to minimize our personal contributions to this outrageous number. Here are a few ways to start:
- Decorate your tree with dried citrus ornaments
- Wrap your gifts with recycled materials
- Challenge yourself to come up with awesome sustainable gift ideas