Real vs Artificial Christmas Trees: The Most Sustainable Option?

by Mandy Adwell on 12/10/2012

in Earth,Living

Christmas tree

The real vs. artificial Christmas tree debate is nothing new in sustainable holiday discussions. There are pros and cons to each choice, so whether you always go for the same type of tree or are still weighing your options, here are some of the benefits and setbacks of each Christmas tree choice.

Artificial Trees

It wasn’t long ago that there was no option for artificial trees for the holiday season. In the 1930s, the Addis Brush Company decided to create an artificial tree from toilet brush bristles, which slowly caught on as a popular way to enjoy a tree in the home without chopping one down. In 2007, artificial tree sales reached 17.4 million.

There are several reasons why so many of us stick to artificial trees – the guilt of cutting down a real tree, cost, convenience, and environmental impact. I’ll be the first to admit that I have an artificial tree (that I purchased at a thrift store) because I don’t want to cut down a new tree every year.

The truth is, artificial trees actually have a larger carbon footprint than real trees, typically manufactured with cheap plastics, metals, and other non-biodegradable materials. Nearly 85% of artificial trees in the US are imported from China, which only adds to the ecological footprint.

Real Trees

About 33 million real Christmas trees are sold in North America every year. Fortunately, about 93% of those trees are recycled. There are about 500,000 acres used for growing the trees, and each acre provides the daily oxygen requirements for 18 people. A single farmed tree absorbs more than a ton of carbon dioxide in its lifetime.

This all leads experts to believe that real trees are more eco-friendly than the plastic versions. The growing trend of “treecycling” comes in as one of the biggest factors, with many trees recycled and used as mulch for gardens, playgrounds, hiking trails, and walkways.

The ideal Christmas tree is raised in an organic environment, but unfortunately, repeated applications of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are often used to keep trees in aesthetically pleasing condition.

Tree Rentals

You may have read our recent post about Christmas tree rentals, which are available in select cities across the United States. This gives people all the benefits of a real tree without chopping one down and killing it. Obviously this is not an option for everyone since it depends on the local climate, but maintaining a Christmas tree that can be replanted after the season is over is a great way to leave a small impact.

In conclusion, your best bet may be a locally grown real tree, preferably rented if you have that option in your city. If you live in an apartment, like me, that doesn’t allow real trees, you may be better off hitting up a resale shop or Craig’s List and reusing one for cheap, rather than purchasing a brand new artificial tree.

What is your preferred Christmas tree option? If you buy a real tree every year, how do you dispose of it at the end of the season?

Image CC licensed by Alexandre Duret-Lutz: Christmas tree

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