The Christmas question: Are real or fake trees greener?

Artificial Christmas trees may last longer, but experts say that real trees are ultimately more sustainable and Earth-friendly.

With Christmas around the corner, people are flooding into stores for presents and thinking about how to decorate their homes for the holiday. One of the biggest decisions is about the centerpiece decoration, the Christmas tree. If you're environmentally conscious, you may be wondering which is better: the real tree, or the artificial tree?

Americans purchased over 21.6 million real trees and 12.9 million artificial trees in 2011, and the number of artificial tree purchases is on the rise, according to data from the American Christmas Tree Association. From an environmental perspective, some believe that buying artificial trees is better because they last for years and don't require cutting down a living tree. Others argue that real trees are better. 

Arguments for and against fake trees

Sheila Eidson, a call center representative at Treetopia, an artificial Christmas tree store, is a big fan of fake trees. She has had an artificial tree for 13 years, and she said she likes it because it will last many years, and it doesn't bother people with allergies. “I am environmentally conscious, and I think it is needless to kill so many trees every year,” said Eidson.

But artificial trees aren't all good for the environment. A February 2009 study by Ellipsos, a consulting firm of sustainable development, suggests that one artificial tree can do three times more damage in terms of climate change and resource depletion than a real tree. The process of manufacturing, transporting, distributing and recycling make artificial trees much less environmentally friendly than real trees.

Why real trees make for a "green Christmas"

The best living Christmas trees are 10 years old or older, said Russell Briggs, director of the division of environmental science at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Farmers need to grow trees for more than seven years until they become marketable. During this time, real trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen to improve air quality. They also stabilize soil, improve water quality and provide habits for birds and other animals, said Briggs.

By contrast, artificial trees are made of polyvinyl chloride, which is one type of petrol-driven plastic. The production of artificial trees releases a large amount of waste gas, including vinyl chloride and dioxin, which aggravates air pollution. Some trees also contain lead, which is harmful to human health.

“People say fake trees can last long, but normally they still keep buying new trees each year,” said Briggs. “Fake trees may be more convenient, but I will never buy fake trees, personally.”

After the holiday season, real trees and fake trees also have dramatically distinct fates. Artificial trees normally end up in landfills, where it takes many years for them to break down. Real trees, on the other hand, can be replanted or made into chips for compost.

“People can use tree needles as fertilizers for gardening,” said Robert Chengerian, the owner of Chengerian’s Tree Land Farm, which has sold Christmas trees since 1974.

At Chengerian's farm, customers pick the tree first and then cut it themselves. There is no reason to worry about the trees getting cut down, Chengerian said; they will be replaced by new trees in the spring. In this way, the tree population does not decrease.

Authentic trees' other benefits

Even if you're not worried about the environmental impacts of artifical trees, you can't beat real trees' fresh pine smell. 

“There is something that makes you feel a little bit weird about buying a fake tree. One thing about real tree is that it has a pine smell,” said Amy Massond, a graduate philosophy major at Syracuse University. Massond recently decided to buy a real Christmas tree for the first time in five years. “Maybe it is something to do with the fact that it is a fake version.”

For Ryan Hersh, an SU law student, buying a Christmas tree is a more emotional purchase than an environmental decision.

“It is more like a tradition. And I can see why people buy fake trees. It may be cleaner,” Hersh said. “However, I don’t think a Christmas tree is something you pull out of the basement every year.” 

xmas trees

Or just decorate a tree all ready in your yard with natural ornaments to feed wildlife.

Christmas trees

I don't see much thinking out of the box here (no pun intended)-

Buy a real tree--from a nursery, in a pot, an plant it in your yard, garden, or donate it to a school or park or the university (get them on board), or sell it to a homeowner for his/her yard (and/or to raise money for Syracuse neighborhoods. Give back to the city that is educating you.

Also, fake trees get real real dusty--and that is an environmental hazard and they are next to impossible to clean.

Next time you go SantaXmas tree shopping, ask the grower to put it in a pot--don't cut it down! If he can't find somebody that will--or just uproot the tree yourself with some help--buy a pot and bring it with you. Don't forget to water it. Replant after Santamas.

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