Real Christmas Trees Are More Eco-Friendly Than Fake Ones

By Simon Griffin on Sunday, December 22, 2013
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“There’s no experience quite like cutting your own live Christmas tree out of your neighbor’s yard.” —Dan Florence

In A Nutshell

In recent times, many people have been switching from real Christmas trees to fake ones in an effort to be more environmentally friendly. But contrary to popular belief, fake trees are usually worse for the environment, and it could take over 20 years of use for the ecological costs to balance out.

The Whole Bushel

More and more these days, people are trying to find eco-friendly alternatives for nearly everything. Killing a tree so you can display it in your house for a few weeks can easily be construed as an environmental pandemic, so people think that by switching to fake trees, they’re helping by saving a tree every year. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

A study conducted by Canadian sustainable development company Ellipsos found that fake trees produce two-thirds more carbon emissions than real trees thanks to manufacturing and transport (with 80 percent sold worldwide coming from China). Furthermore, their manufacturing and proper disposal can be carcinogenic, if disposed of properly at all.

While this study was specific to Montreal, another study conducted by the American Christmas Tree Association found that a fake tree would need to be used for at least 10 years to make it a more viable alternative in terms of carbon emissions alone, but that the average life of an artificial tree is only six years. They also found that 80 percent of the 79 million households that display trees use artificial ones, and those people are also likely to display multiple trees. This means that most people in the US are buying fake trees to be greener, but failing to keep them long enough to achieve this. And by buying more than one, they’re being even more wasteful. Given that the American Christmas Tree Association is an artificial-tree trading group whose main angle is eco-friendliness, we can safely bet that if their studies say real trees are more eco-friendly, they’re telling the truth. If anything, they’re most likely still making the fake trees out to be better than reality, as that’s in their best business interests.

Apart from the obvious downsides fake trees have with regards to manufacturing and shipping, there are a lot of benefits to growing real trees that can’t be replicated by any artificial trees. Cleaner air is pretty obvious, so we’ll just get that one out of the way. Real Christmas trees are grown specifically for the purpose of being cut down, so by buying a fake one, you’re not “saving a tree’s life,” you’re just cutting the demand for real trees and thus the amount of real trees that will be planted in the future. Further, you’re replacing something that cuts carbon emissions with something that increases them. There are currently about 400 million Christmas trees growing on 350,000 acres of land in the United States alone, and if we didn’t use them to celebrate Christmas, those numbers would probably be zero. That’s almost half a billion trees that exist in the US thanks to Christmas, a number that has been growing as the population increases. Last year, 24.5 million real trees were sold in the US, while 46 million were planted (50–75 percent of these will survive), meaning the demand for real trees is only increasing the environmental benefits. Apart from creating cleaner air, these tree farms offer a habitat to many wild animals. It’s also important to remember here that these habitats don’t vanish every year. It can take up to a decade to grow one of these trees, so it’s not a very disruptive process.

Another factor to take into account is that the soil required to grow the trees doesn’t need to be as high quality as the soil required for other crops, meaning that we can use land that may not be used for farming otherwise, or would have to be transformed first. Then there’s the fact that they require a lot less care. Compared to other farms, tree farms don’t require anywhere near as much attention, machinery, or pesticides, and can get on pretty fine by themselves for most of the year. This allows many farmers to have a great source of income that isn’t labor intensive. Disposal is also cleaner. While artificial trees will either be incinerated or thrown in a dump, real trees can be turned into compost or recycled in other ways. Ninety-three percent of real trees are recycled, whereas almost all fake trees are impossible to recycle. As stated earlier, only 20 percent of displayed trees are real. If fake trees weren’t used at all, that could equate to two billion real trees planted in the US. Obviously things might not work out that neatly in reality, or problems could arise with so many tree farms, but for the majority of people, real trees are definitely the greener choice.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: How Green Is Your Real (or Fake) Christmas Tree?
Christmas Tree Facts: University of Illinois Extension
American Christmas Tree Association: American Households and Christmas

  • Hillyard

    We’ve had our fake tree for about 20 years now, (it looks like something Charlie Brown would get) so we’re doing ok in the carbon footprint thing.

    • Hadeskabir

      I have mine for 10 years, so I don’t think I’m hurting the environment.

    • Lisa

      Ive had mine for 22 years & its charlie brownish also but it still works & when its time for a new one ill cut the branches off & make wreath’s & probably get another 20 years out of it. Recycling! & ill scrap the metal poles

  • Efamore

    I’ve never once heard someone with a fake tree say “we’re just trying to reduce our carbon footprint.” It’s mostly them complaining, “Real trees are too messy/I don’t have the time to go get a real one/i don’t feel like cutting one down if I have too/Real trees are just too messy! (x4)”

    (Our family has ALWAYS gotten a real tree!)

    • Errkism

      Yep my family has always used a real tree. It’s not even much work to clean up after a real tree, people are just lazy. If a parent goes with a fake tree, you are kind of taking a big junk of Christmas away from your kids. Glad you ALWAYS get a real one just like me and my family.

    • DarthPoot

      Apartments don’t allow real trees.

  • Mom424

    We always have a real tree. Make the house smell nice and supports our local growers. And besides, the only fake ones I ever like cost a zillion dollars because they look real—naturally.

    • Hillyard

      When I was a kid we always had a real tree until one year when my step brother and his family moved to town. His wife was allergic to the trees so we went with a fake from then on. My first Christmas with my wife we had a real tree, but the clean up and disposal was a real pain so she insisted on a fake the next year. So I bought the Charlie Brown looking thing we have at the PX. Personally though I would prefer a real tree, seems the ‘king’ doesn’t always get his wish.

    • Hadeskabir

      We used real trees in my house for years, but then we decided to buy a good artificial Christmas tree. It’s 2,20 meters tall and after 10 years it’s still like brand new. I miss the old days when, in early December, I would go with my father and brother to the woods to get a pine tree for Christmas. It was a tradition that died with time.

    • Blue

      The problem is that this article tries to give an environmental purpose to fake plastic trees. I think the reality is that, in my country at least, they have been in use for decades purely because real ones are a nightmare to clean up after dropping their leaves and stuff.

      It is possibly only the last 10-15 years where I have ever heard of environmentally friendly fake trees, whereas all my family have always used fake trees.

    • http://www.seguebythesea.com/ segue

      We have a living tree. Living trees not only look and smell great, they can be planted in the forest (if you have one available), or in the park or your yard after the holidays.

  • stoopkidisstoopid

    This is ridiculous, who would actually think an artificial tree was more eco-friendly than an actual tree? A real, actual oxygen giving plant Vs. a molded plastic chemical based substitute…..and you’re telling me the real tree is better for the environment?!?!?!?! Wow, mind=blown. Listverse is getting seriously lame. Did you know Oxygen is better for humans to breath in than Carbon Monoxide? Now where’s my 50 bucks, bitches.

    • Lisa

      We had to get artificial because my 2 oldest kids &i are allergic to real.

      • stoopkidisstoopid

        I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with artificial, I’m saying it’s obvious real trees are more eco-friendly! I’ve used both and don’t mind either.

        • Lisa

          I agree that they’re more eco friendly but not everyone can have them. Maybe the fake tree manufacturers should see if theres a better more eco friendly way to make them.

  • MCC

    No Shit

  • Anthony

    No shit. Of course real trees are more ecofriendly

  • jasoromchCampione

    I think that its real Christmas Tree not fake .I will present the christmas tree in the day of Christmas.
    http://turboextracutsite.net/

  • TrueSuperSand

    You don’t say

  • Passin’ Through

    I had to read the title a few times because I thought I was reading it wrong. Of course real trees are more Eco-friendly. Used real trees decompose. Used artificial trees don’t. Real trees provide oxygen to the environment. Fake trees are made in carbon producing factories. I’ll file this one under ‘Common Knowledge Nuts’.

  • Errkism

    It’s not Christmas unless you have a real tree.

  • Andyman7714

    We’ve had our fake tree for about 30 years now and it still looks great. I can still remember the coldest day on Earth cutting down what ended up being a crooked trunk tree that kept falling over being the day I swore off real trees. Eco-schmeko…I save time and gas every year. We even have a Sunday after Thanksgiving tradition of putting up the tree.

    What I find disheartening about real trees (I do like them mind you) is the day after Christmas how many we see already at the curb in garbage bags. Sad.