Real vs. fake: Which Christmas tree is better for the environment?

By Zoe Binder

Both tree options have positive and negative impacts on the environment. HALEY KEIZUR/FOGHORN

Ask anyone who celebrates Christmas about the most iconic decorative item in their home, and they’ll almost certainly tell you it’s their Christmas tree. Since people began to decorate their trees for the holidays in the 16th century, Christmas trees have been the December centerpiece of homes around the world. Recently, this tradition has been subject to change as more and more families are abandoning the process of choosing a real tree and hauling it home — instead, many families are opting to invest in reusable plastic trees. 

Does the decision to switch to plastic have other benefits for the environment that we wouldn’t normally consider? How can we as consumers make the right decision in this crucial time that necessitates climate awareness? The following is an overview of the environmental impact of real trees versus artificial trees.

Real Christmas trees are mass-produced as a crop, which means that when you buy a Christmas tree, you are not contributing to any form of deforestation. Naturally-available fir trees are strictly off-limits for harvesting, meaning the tree you might buy for the holidays was grown on a farm for the sole purpose of being bought during the Christmas season. While this process does require a large amount of water, energy, and land, the same environmental consequences apply to those who choose to chop down their own tree.

At the same time, the process of growing fir trees has environmental benefits, such as the constant cleansing of the air, the creation of shelter and natural habitats for surrounding wildlife, and the fact that, being trees, they are biodegradable, so their disposal will cause less harm than that of an artificial tree. One less-consequential but irreplaceable benefit of having a real tree in your home is the calming natural scent of the pine, which adds a bit of warmth to the holiday season. 

Artificially-produced, plastic Christmas trees have gained popularity over the last few decades. While they are reusable, studies from the American Christmas Tree Association have shown that many families use their tree for less than three years before discarding it and purchasing a new one. This has a much greater impact on the environment than the disposal of a real, biodegradable tree. Additionally, the vast majority of artificial trees are produced overseas (predominantly in China) and create an abundance of greenhouse gas emissions in the manufacturing process, as well as during their shipment to the U.S.

On a superficial level, a plastic tree also lacks the natural qualities of the real tree, such as the festive scent and the way the tree begins to shed its needles.

Buying an artificial tree can be beneficial to the environment, so long as the tree is put to good use for multiple years. However, only using a plastic tree for less than five years before tossing it is extremely wasteful and detrimental to the environment. Purchasing a real tree will not impact the climate terribly, especially if the tree is bought from a local farm, reducing the emissions that would otherwise be produced while transporting the product. 

Personally, I will be urging my family to buy a real tree this year — for me, it’s not Christmas without the thick scent of pine in the house. I encourage you to keep the environment in mind when buying your tree this year and remember to reduce your footprint in other ways (like using LED string lights on the tree). Happy holidays!

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