These past couple of years, I’ve wondered whether a fake or real Christmas tree is better for the environment. Being a gardener, I want to do what’s right for our planet. Initially, I used real trees but then thought cutting down a live tree removed an oxygen-producing plant from our ecosystem. So, I bought a plastic tree and have re-used it for years. But then I thought about how plastic is made from oil. I don’t want to support oil companies.
I considered all of the angles, read a bunch of articles, and tied myself up into a ball of general confusion. However, in all of that, I learned a few things, which helped me decide what kind of tree to decorate during the Christmas season. Here are my thoughts on real versus fake Christmas trees.
Fake Christmas Trees Are Made From PVC
PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is a chemically created compound that’s great for pipes and windows, but not so great for inside the home. PVC contains phthalates, which release dangerous VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, and inhaling those can be hazardous to one’s health.
Also, artificial Christmas trees, especially older ones, contain lead, which, as the trees age, can degrade and get onto people’s hands as the tree or ornaments are handled. Lastly, the trees are sprayed with fire-retardant chemicals, which are also unhealthy to inhale or absorb through the skin.
Fake Christmas Trees Require a Lot of Resources
Apparently, 90% of fake trees are made in China. The factories that produce the trees often do not adhere to any carbon emission laws or provide decent working conditions for their employees. Workers often live in dormitories and don’t make a living wage.
Then the ships that carry the trees use a large amount of fuel, emitting an immense amount of carbon in the air. From there, trucks transport the trees to stores. And the trees are packaged in cardboard boxes, made from, what else, trees?
Fake Christmas Trees Can Be Re-Used
According to what I’ve read, if you use your artificial Christmas tree for six to nine years, you’re neutralizing the amount of carbon emissions used to create that tree. That’s a solid upshot. If you buy one artificial tree and then use it for a decade or more, that’s good for the environment.
But what happens when you no longer need or want that specific tree? You can donate it to a charity shop like Goodwill and it may have a new life at someone else’s house via that sale, but what if it doesn’t? Or what if it breaks while being transported? It will end up in a landfill. And we all know that plastic does not fully degrade for hundreds of years.
Real Christmas Trees Create Oxygen and Absorb Carbon Dioxide
I’ve read that, every year, one acre of real Christmas trees absorbs almost 500 pounds of carbon dioxide. Similarly, that same acre will create about 1000 pounds of oxygen. That’s amazing!
But if you buy a real Christmas tree, aren’t you supporting the end of that environmentally friendly tree? Not really. On tree farms across the U.S., there are 350-500 million trees growing but only 30 million are cut down annually. That still leaves a huge surplus of live trees to clean the air and produce oxygen. So overall, buying real Christmas trees helps clean the air and support a healthier environment.
Real Christmas Trees Support Local Tree Farmers
If you buy a live Christmas tree, you’re supporting a local farmer who may otherwise sell his or her land for development. So, keeping farmers in business not only helps the environment but also the local economy. The money stays local or at least within a region instead of going to China.
Real Christmas Trees That Are Sold Are Usually Replaced
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, tree farmers usually plant 1-3 seedlings for every tree cut and sold. That actually ensures the cut tree is not only replaced, but the farm itself may expand with more trees grown.
Real Christmas Trees Are Compostable
While many cities offer Christmas tree pick up and composting services, some cities don’t. Regardless, real Christmas trees can still be composted in one’s backyard. The branches can be cut off and laid over dormant perennial beds to protect plants. Trunks can be cut up and used for firewood or chipped and used for mulch. Or they can be left whole to edge garden beds.
Some folks worry that the needles will acidify their soil, but from what I’ve read, the pH of the needles neutralizes once in the soil. They just have a waxy coating that prevents them from breaking down quickly.
So after doing this research, I’ve realized the best thing for the environment, hands down, is to buy a real Christmas tree every year. There may be a risk of pesticide residue on the cut trees, but I think that’s a small price to pay compared to the positives. Plus, I’m sure there are organic tree choices if not entirely organic farms. Even though they can be expensive, real trees support local farmers and a cleaner earth. And that idea makes me merrier during the holiday season.