Live Consciously

Is a Real or Fake Christmas Tree Better for the Environment?

So you’re trying to take the green part of red-and-green more seriously this holiday season?

Here’s a question that might come up: Should you chop down a tree to deck the halls? Or is it better to invest in a reusable (albeit less fragrant) faux fir?

Perhaps surprisingly, there have been a few studies that have considered the question, so we’ve got a little bit of evidence we can dig into to get some answers to your eco-conscious Christmas conundrum.

Here are the factors to consider to make this the most sustainable time of the year.

(Photos: Shutterstock)

Real vs. Fake Christmas Trees

  • Deforestation

    This is generally the first thing people think of: You don’t want be responsible for cutting down another tree year after year, right? Wrong. You really don’t have to sweat this factor, according to experts, because Christmas trees are generally planted for that purpose and are replaced over and over (unless you’re trekking into the woods to chop down a random tree that’s not farmed—that’s slightly different). Plus, Christmas tree farms provide environmental benefits—they generate oxygen, trap carbon in the soil, and provide habitats for healthy ecosystems.

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  • Comparing Energy Use and Emissions

    Comparing the energy it takes to grow a real tree to what it takes to produce a fake one is pretty complicated, but the most comprehensive study done on the topic to date, by a consulting firm called Ellipsos, found that artificial trees have “three times more impact on climate change and resource depletion than natural trees.”

    Transportation is an even more complex factor: you might think artificial trees shipped from China would produce more greenhouse gas emissions than a farmer trucking trees from Canada down to New York, but international bulk shipping is actually pretty efficient, and old farm trucks are not. In other words, it’s hard to say definitely which is worse given the variability on a case by case basis.

    If you buy from a farm that’s super close to you, however, you’re definitely minimizing those transport emissions, and you’re also supporting the local farm economy, which is good for your local community.

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  • Materials and Waste

    Most artificial trees are made with PVC, a plastic that may contain chemicals with adverse health effects, including endocrine disruptors like phthalates and BPA. (There are some PVC-free options available.) The biggest thing is they’re not recyclable, so when you do throw it out, it’s going into the landfill. Real trees, on the other hand, can be composted or recycled into mulch. Many cities, like New York, offer curbside pick-up for trees and then process them into mulch and wood chips used in the city’s parks.

  • The Bottom Line

    Based on the best research we have, real is almost always better—which is amazing news, because who doesn’t want their house to smell like glorious pine?! The Ellipsos study, for example, found that “an artificial tree would have to be reused for more than 20 years to be greener than buying a fresh-cut tree annually,” and that conclusion accounted for emissions, use of resources, and human health impacts.

    Your best bet is to buy a real tree as close to home as possible. (Hey, visiting the actual farm as a family is a really great holiday season activity, too.) If you do go artificial, try to find a PVC-free option and keep it for as long as possible.

    Either way, this doesn’t have to be at the top of your holiday stress list. (There are so many other things that deserve the spot). According to forestry expert Bill Cook, “In the annual carbon and energy footprint of an average American family, a Christmas tree of either breed is pretty much inconsequential.”

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