Fresh or Fake: Choosing the Right Christmas Tree

By Linda Knittel, Senior Editor

As a child I loved the smell of a freshly cut Douglas fir or blue spruce filling the house at Christmas. Picking out our tree was one of the best parts of the holiday. But my tastes have shifted as an adult. Now I own a vintage-looking white artificial tree that goes perfectly with my 1960s ranch house—not to mention it’s way easier to set up. But I have wondered if my fake tree is better or worse for my family and the environment. To find out, I took a look at the pros and cons of both fresh and artificial trees.

Fresh Christmas Trees

Except for a very small number of trees taken from US forest lands or private properties, most fresh-cut Christmas trees are grown on farms exclusively for that purpose. Not only does buying one of these trees support local farmers, but during the six to ten years it takes each to mature they provide habitat for birds, insects and other creatures, while absorbing carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen. What’s more, once the holidays are over, your tree can be mulched and used to feed plants and maintain parks.

But fresh trees do have pest issues, and except for a small number that are organically grown, most are grown using fungicides and pesticides such as Roundup, which have been linked to numerous health conditions. While it’s true you’re not eating your tree, and the amount of chemicals used to grow it is less than that, say, for an apple tree, some residual does make it into your home.

A natural tree is a better choice overall in terms of impact on climate change and resource depletion.

Fake Christmas Trees

Artificial trees are reusable, relatively inexpensive, easy to set up, and they create less mess. Mine even came with lights already attached. That said, they aren’t perfect. Fake trees are made from plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC), whose components have been linked to some of their own questionable health issues. Plus, since PVC is a non-recyclable plastic, most artificial trees will eventually end up in a landfill.

So, what should you choose? According to a 2009 study that compared the sustainability of both options, a natural tree is a better choice overall in terms of impact on climate change and resource depletion. But don’t feel badly if, like me, an artificial tree is your preference; just make sure to use it for decades, and you’ll offset its impact on the environment. And if neither option feels right, you can always string lights on a potted plant and light a pine-scented candle.

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