Real Vs. Fake Trees – Which is Better for the Environment?

Photo © Carol Fernandez

Tis the season for an age-old question: Which kind of Christmas tree–real or fake–is better for the environment? We love this question, because it’s an example of a simple choice that anyone and everyone can make that can reduce our impacts on the environment. We also love this question because, like many environmental issues, the answer isn’t as simple as you might think. Our #1 recommendation? Buy a real tree. Read on for more details on the impacts of both real and fake Christmas trees, and then make the choice that’s right for you.

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Photo © Mallory Dash

In 2015, 25.9 million trees were purchased from live Christmas tree farms–more than twice the number of fake trees purchased (12.5 million). There are more than 350K acres of family farms growing mini forests of Christmas trees in the U.S. producing 100,000 part and full time jobs–plus another 76K farms in Canada. That’s a lot of land kept busy absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere every year–a true natural climate solution. If you buy your tree from a “U-Pick” farm, of which 32% of buyers did in 2015, then know that each tree cut from a farm is typically replaced by 1-3 seedlings, which continue removing carbon from the air.

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Photo © timjhopwood

In addition to being carbon “sinks” Christmas tree farms provide important habitat for birds and other wildlife, reduce erosion, and can be a source of food for local pollinators. It turns out that acres of tree farm really are a pretty great way to use land to support both people and wildlife. Keeping up demand for live trees is one way to ensure this 1.3 billion dollar market thrives.

Looking for a Local Christmas Tree Farm?

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Photo © Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism

The National Christmas Tree Association allows you to search for tree farms by zip code or find one on this site offering a listing by state and county. Even better, twenty-two states now have organic Christmas tree farms. Find what is best for you and Happy Holidays.

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Photo © Parker Knight

However, if you’re one of the other 68% who buys a real tree from a chain, local nonprofit, or other retail store or group, then make sure you know where those trees are from. Locally-harvested trees–just like locally-grown foods–are often the best choice for the environment. Locally-harvested trees reduce the impacts on climate change (because they’re not traveling far) and reduce the likelihood that non-native species could hitch a ride in your tree and eventually invade a new habitat.

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Photo © Magnus Franklin

You might even been interested in an even more eco-friendly option: The potted tree. Sometimes difficult to find, it might take some calls to local nurseries to locate a potted tree. People will buy one, and leave it outside on their patio most of the year, and bring it in for Christmas to decorate. While others will buy one each season, and plant it when the ground is ready, adding to their personal forest. We even have a story of a family who planted their Christmas trees in the yard, and 20 years later, their children, with a house of their own, went to grandma and grandpa’s yard and cut their own Christmas tree from the offspring of the original potted trees they had planted as a family.

Dig your hole in November

Planted Chris tree

Photo © Chris Marx

If you invest in a potted Christmas tree with the intention to plant it after the holiday, consider digging the hole in November. In areas that experience consecutive freezing days and nights by the end of December, digging your hole in November will likely save you time and stress. This also may increase the chances of your tree’s success as you will likely create a deeper hole before the ground freezes. One Habitat Network user who purchases potted trees, as depicted in this image, shared with us this wisdom; “My final thoughts: Getting a potted Christmas tree is great. You do, however, need to plan ahead. You need a hand truck, and you really need to get your hole dug ahead of time.”

Planted Christmas trees are a great way to fill-in landscape holes, create windbreaks, or block-out neighbors. Another Habitat Network user shares; “We have a corner of our property that is exposed to our neighbors. Though we get along, we’d prefer some privacy. So each year we get a potted Christmas tree and then plant it in the corner of our property so that over time we have provided habitat while finding the privacy we desire.”

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Photo © Erica Marx

On the super high-end? Some regions offer potted tree “rental.” They will deliver a potted tree of your choice to you home, and remove it, care for it, and rent it out again the next season. As the evergreen becomes too big it is planted somewhere permanently and continues to sequester carbon, provide habitat for wildlife, and many other ecological services.

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Photo © Erica Marx

Potted trees also provide the added benefits of being alive. This means they stay green, drop fewer needles, and are more fire resistant. Potted pines are locally grown and are usually delivered and picked-up. This offers an ecological choice that is renewable, reusable and smells like a Christmas tree!

Once Christmas is Over

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Photo © Mark Hillary

The best way to dispose of your tree is with your local or city recycling program. These programs use trees in lots of fun ways–the tree itself can be used to help trap sand on beaches to prevent erosion, or can be sunk in ponds to provide habitat for fish and other wildlife, or it can simply be chipped and used again in its new form. There are over 4,000 tree recycling programs in the U.S. alone. Letting your tree decompose in your own backyard is only a suggested if it was cut within 10 miles of your home, otherwise there is a possibility of introducing invasive pest and disease. Check with your local municipality on proper tree recycling in your neighborhood.

Eighty percent of the fake trees sold in the U.S. are shipped here from China, and artificial trees contain non-biodegradable plastics and possible metal toxins such as lead. Most of China’s electricity comes from burning coal—the dirtiest source of electricity.

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Photo © Joshua Blount

Once the fake trees are made, they still have to be shipped across the ocean—usually in a diesel-fuel powered ships. More emissions. If you move beyond the climate change implications of fake tree processing and shipping, there are other concerns. Strangely, invasive species can make their way into fake trees. A very damaging invasive is being found in shipments of artificial holiday trees. People have reported grubs in the wooden trunks of fake trees, resulting in entire shipments being burned to prevent foreign species invasion.

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Photo © Matt Reinbold

There are a few good reasons that you might own a fake tree. In some parts of the country, real trees are very expensive making fake trees a more economical choice. Medical restrictions can prevent the use of live trees. People with allergies to pollen or terpenes (the chemicals responsible for the familiar smell of the tree) will likely benefit from use of a fake tree. Immunocompromised patients are often restricted from having plants in their living spaces since standing water and soil associated with plants can contain large concentrations of potential pathogens, and decaying organic matter may contain fungus. If you already have a fake tree, store it carefully each year so it will last for as many Christmases as possible. Research suggests using a fake tree 10 times makes the carbon footprint even out to using real trees–so make 10 Christmases with your fake tree the goal!

Interested in supporting native birds and wildlife through the winter? Consider adding more fruit and nut-bearing shrubs and trees to your landscape. Here is an article to get you started; Winter Berries for Winter Birds

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