Are Real or Artificial Trees Better for the Environment?

By: Katie Pfeifer

Real or artificial Christmas trees, which is better for the environment? This question seems to come up every year around the holiday season. There are many factors that go into making an environmentally friendly choice this season depending on what environmental and health factors matter most to you.  A recent article from the NY Times citing information from studies from both the American Christmas Tree Association, which represents manufacturers of artificial Christmas trees, and the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents US Christmas tree farmers gives good insight to the debate.

First, the case for a real Christmas tree. Not only the classic, but real trees are also are great for the economy. Real Christmas trees are crops that farmers grow for the purpose of being cut down. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents Christmas tree farmers, there are currently over 350 million Christmas trees growing in the US by farmers and it takes about 7-10 years for a tree to grow. When it is cut down, the farmer will typically plant a one to three seedlings in its place the following spring. Over 100,000 people are gainfully employed in the US Christmas tree farming industry at over 15,000 farms. The industry provides plenty of jobs and helps stimulate the economy. More than 80% of fake Christmas trees are manufactured in China, buying a real tree helps support American jobs and local economy.

Real Christmas trees are also great for the environment. They clean the air and also provide crucial ecosystems and watersheds to wildlife. They also grow best on hilly land that is unsuitable for other crops. Tree farms cover over 350,000 acres, assisting in land preservation. As long as Americans continue to buy real trees, the land is protected from being sold to developers. Best of all, real trees are compostable and recyclable. There are over 4,000 Christmas tree recycling programs in the US. One of the most successful is Mulch Fest in New York City, an event that the city holds to collect thousands of trees to mulch for use in public parks.

As for artificial Christmas trees, the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents Christmas tree manufacturers, says that fake trees are the more environmentally friendly way to go. According to their sustainability life cycle assessment, if you use and keep the tree for longer than 5 years, its environmental impact is less than that of purchasing a real tree every year. The typical family will keep a tree between 6-9 years before throwing it away. While the impact may be slightly less based on purchasing a new real tree every year, artificial trees will ultimately end up in landfills across America. Fake trees are primarily petroleum based and made of PVC, metals, and chemical adhesives. These materials can have toxic health risks, some artificial trees even tested positive for traces of lead. When dumped into a landfill these toxins can start to leech adding to environmental issues. Some artificial trees require special labeling thanks to California prop 65. The label states: “This product contains chemicals including lead, known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm”. That’s a scary thing to have present in your home and around your family.

While the debate will continue it’s good to know that no matter how they are disposed of, real or artificial, Christmas trees only account for less than 0.1% of the average person’s annual carbon footprint. Happy Holidays from all at CHEJ!