evergreen tree with holiday ornaments

The debate over real vs. artificial Christmas tree has been raging on for decades, with armies of staunch supporters on both sides. In the interests of full disclosure, this author stands with two feet planted firmly on the Real Tree camp. So rather than a balanced overview of the situation, you are about to read a pro-real-free screed with the unabashed goal of conversion.

First of all, of course, come the environmental ramifications of each choice. Which is worse, chopping down, purchasing and disposing of a live tree every year? Or choosing one plastic one to use year in and year out? To answer this, let’s break it down with some facts provided by the Recycling Council of British Columbia, aptly named Tree Debate.

Artificial Christmas tree
Image courtesy of Tanis

Artificial trees

Mostly produced in China, Taiwan and South Korea under lax environmental standards and poor working conditions. Oil is the main ingredient in artificial Christmas trees, and they must travel thousands of kilometers to reach the consumer, burning fossil fuels all the way (ho ho ho!).

Most artificial trees have an average life of seven to 10 years, during which time phthalates can accumulate in, and damage, the lungs, liver and reproductive organs. Artificial trees cannot be recycled, and so they must either be incinerated and release carcinogens into the atmosphere, or head to the landfill where they will never break down.


Now, how about the old standby, that slightly lopsided Charlie Brown tree you picked up in the sketchy tree lot that mysteriously appeared in the 7-11 parking lot?

Real Christmas tree
Image courtesy of K. Shuyler

Real trees

Locally grown trees support local economies, with tens of millions of trees providing employment both year-round, and in the temporary season leading up to the holidays. Each acre of Christmas trees produces the daily oxygen needs for 18 people, and the root system of each tree helps to stabilize local soil systems and prevent water sedimentation.

It’s true that improperly used pesticides may have detrimental affects to surrounding natural environments, and a Christmas tree allowed to dry out can also pose a fire hazard. But! When Christmas passes, the trees are 100 percent biodegradable and recyclable. Many municipalities have Christmas tree recycling programs that turn old trees into mulch, and wood chips to use in garden beds to further nourish the soil.

So on the eco-friendly front, live trees are a clear winner, hands down. But, for this Christmas aficionado, there is another factor that pushes the real tree to the gold medal spot without a shadow of a doubt. You see, a close runner-up to the economic and environment considerations of real trees is the simple tradition of the thing. I mean, one doesn’t simply walk to the attic and pull an entire Christmas tree from a crumpled cardboard box pre-lit! That’s utter blasphemy! Complete humbug!

Some of my fondest memories of Christmas are standing in a freezing cold parking lot with my five siblings and exhausted parents, wandering in circles as it became ever-darker, trying to agree on some poor specimen to take home. My little sisters always pined for anemic-looking shrubs, while my brother and I rallied for 8-foot tall monstrosities. Let me tell you, the memories of my parents arguing in a parking lot forest while my father became increasing apoplectic with rage over the price tags and my toes slowly froze will be one I cherish forever.

Now that’s how it’s done. Merry Christmas!

Feature image courtesy of Aurlmas 

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.