Is An Artificial Christmas Tree More Eco-Friendly Than A Real One?

We look into whether you should go for the fake tree you can use for years or the real one that only lasts for one Christmas.

November 22, 2017
should you get a real christmas tree or a fake one?
Nico De Pasquale Photography/Getty

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: According to the American Christmas Tree Association, which conducts a yearly survey in conjunction with Neilson, 81% of Christmas trees Americans decorated in 2016 were artificial. (The survey also notes that households with artificial trees were more likely to put up multiple trees.) But popularity aside, are artificial trees really the better option? Sure they don't drop needles and you can use the same tree for a decade or more, but they're also made of plastic. Real trees, on the other hand, are a renewable resource, but growers often spray them with toxic pesticides. What's a eco-concious tree shopper to do? Here we way the pros and cons of each option. 

(Brag your love of gardening with the Organic Life 2018 Wall Calendar, featuring gorgeous photographs, cooking tips and recipes, plus how to eat more—and waste less—of what's in season.)


Fresh Christmas Trees

Pros: Few Christmas trees come from forests anymore. Virtually all of them are grown on farms, and those farms 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 for 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.

Related: 4 Tips To Help You Forage For Holiday Greens Without Hurting The Environment 

Cons: Those real trees have pest problems and are usually grown with pesticides that are toxic to wildlife and, in some cases, to people. The Environmental Protection Agency has banned indoor use of some of the pesticides used on Christmas trees, such as chlorpyrifos and malathion, which can cause damage to human nervous systems. (Luckily there are more Christmas tree growers using integrated pest management techniques and organic approaches.)  

And don't forget your advent calendar! Try making your own DIY version this year:

Fake Christmas Trees

Pros: They're cheap, reusable, and never drop needles all over your carpet. They are also less likely to tip over due to a wonky-shaped trunk that doesn't quite fit in the tree stand.

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.) PVC 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. Eventually, it's going to wind up in a landfill and stay there forever, barring some intervention from St. Nick.


Related: 4 Holiday Plants To Get This Year If You're Sick Of Poinsettias 

So Which Should You Choose?

Real trees win. 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 ultimately it will end up in a landfill at the end of its life. (In contrast, here are six ways to recycle your real Christmas tree.) 

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. If you can 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 just can't beat the smell of a real tree.