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, especially based on who you ask.
Each industry has an association fighting its cause, the American Christmas Tree Association representing artificial tree manufacturers and the National Christmas Tree Association supporting Christmas tree growers. Both organizations present a compelling case.
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.
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.
However, the biggest pro for artificial trees may be cost. A 2011 Nielsen survey found the average cost of a real Christmas tree was $46, compared to $78 for an artificial tree, meaning reusing the artificial tree a second year will save money. This doesn’t even factor in the costs of tree stands and lights, typically included with an artificial tree but sold separately with a real tree.
Their convenience is also appealing to consumers as they don’t need watering, don’t leave pine needles or sap all over the floor and transportation from tree farm to home isn’t an issue. Artificial trees come in a compact cardboard box that easily fits in most cars instead of tied to the roof.
But many experts believe artificial trees actually have a greater negative environmental impact when all aspects of 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 nonrecyclable and nonbiodegradable, meaning they will sit in a landfill for centuries after disposal. An artificial tree will last on average five to seven years, meaning you’ll eventually have to dispose of it, and many secondhand stores will not accept them. There’s also no guarantee the LED lights will last the whole time you own it, and they can’t be removed and replaced like with a real tree.
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.
Lastly, there’s the space consideration. You will be storing an artificial tree in your home for 11 months, and it won’t fit easily back into the box once you uncoil the branches. You’ll need to find the storage space, whereas real trees require no storage needs.
The Pros and Cons of Real
Approximately 25 to 30 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 trees 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.
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.
This article was originally published on Nov. 29, 2010. It was updated by Trey Granger on Dec. 13, 2017.