The Christmas Tree Dilemma: Real or Fake?

We weigh the pros and cons to help you decide.

December 6, 2011

If opting for a fresh Christmas tree over a fake one is a no-brainer in your mind, you're at odds with a majority of the public: Approximately 60 percent of Americans set up fake trees for the holidays, according to a 2004 poll by ABC News and The Washington Post. But—popularity aside—which is the healthier, more ecofriendly choice?

The Pros & Cons of Fresh Christmas Trees

Pros: Few Christmas trees come from forests anymore. Virtually all of them are grown on plantations, and those plantations are located in all 50 states, making fresh Christmas trees easy to find locally. Buying real trees helps support small local farmers, and at the end of the holiday season, the trees can be mulched up and used to feed plants or find some other environmentally friendly purpose. In Louisiana, conservation groups use leftover Christmas trees to bolster coastal wetlands that have been eroded by hurricanes, and in Illinois, they are used to provide nesting habitats for herons.

Cons: Those real trees have real pest problems, and are usually grown with pesticides that are toxic to wildlife and, in some cases, to people. The most commonly used pesticide is Roundup, which is toxic to some birds and fish and was recently discovered to be toxic to human cells due to all the inert ingredients used. The Environmental Protection Agency has banned indoor use of some of the pesticides used on Christmas trees, such as chlorpyrifos and malathion, which damage human nervous systems.


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The Pros and Cons of Fake Christmas Trees

Pros: They're cheap, reusable, and may even come conveniently predecorated.

Cons: All that budget decorating comes at a cost to the environment. Fake trees are made from the plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and the toxic chemical dioxin is released during PVC production. (By the way, in the event of a fire, the tree will burn and emit dioxin.) PCV contains hormone-disrupting plastic softeners called phthalates. And many fake trees have been found to be contaminated with lead. In fact, many of them come with a warning label advising you to wash your hands after handling them to prevent ingestion of the brain-damaging metal. Does that sound like something you want in your living room? And the plastic tree can't be recycled, should you decide to ditch it for a newer model. So it's going to and wind up in a landfill and stay there forever, barring some intervention from St. Nick.

What Should You Choose?

Go with…This. Real trees. Why pollute your Christmas with toxic plastics and hazardous heavy metals? The durability and convenience of fake Christmas trees may make them more attractive than the alternative of buying a new tree every year, but a life-cycle analysis conducted in Canada found that you'd need to use your fake tree for 20 years for it to be considered more
environmentally friendly than your yearly evergreen.

While it is true that real trees can pollute waterways with pesticides, the amount of pesticides used on tree farms has fallen substantially, according to surveys conducted by the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension. The amount used varies by tree species and the climate in which it's grown, but the researchers at NCSU's Cooperative Extension estimate that trees grown in North Carolina need only a quarter of an ounce of pesticide per tree over the course of the tree’s lifetime. They note that farmers in North Carolina, the country's second-largest Christmas tree producer, rely more on pesticide-free integrated pest-management techniques to reduce unwanted insects and weeds, for both health and environmental reasons. Find a tree farm that uses organic methods, of course, and the use of chemical pesticides is not an issue.

Plus, let's face it: You can't beat the smell of a fresh Christmas tree.