Real or Artificial – Which Type of Christmas Tree is Better for the Environment?

Now that we have entered the Holiday season, many families will be putting up Christmas trees in the next few weeks as part of their traditional celebrations. With a variety of both real trees and artificial trees available the right choice can depend on a variety of personal circumstances. For families trying to be eco-friendly for the holidays, the question is often asked…which is more eco-friendly real trees or artificial trees?

The answer may be surprising for some, but the truth is that the most eco-friendly Christmas tree option is to buy a real tree instead of an artificial one.

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While it seems logical to presume that artificial trees are the best choice, given that they are used several times instead of just once by digging deeper into the manufacturing process, you soon realize the eco-disadvantages. Artificial trees are made with polyvinyl chloride (or PVC) which is one of the most environmentally offensive forms of non-renewable, petroleum-derived plastic.

From a health perspective the manufacture of PVC has been known to produce several known carcinogens such as dioxin, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride. These carcinogens often work their way into communities and various forms of cancer have been associated with them as well. About 85% of all artificial trees sold in North America are made in China, Korea or Taiwan where environmental protections are far less rigid than in North America.
Fake trees can also contain lead and other additives, which is used to make PVC more malleable. This also creates health concerns since many of these additives have been linked to liver, kidney, neurological and reproductive system damage in lab studies on animals.

When it comes time to eventually replace an artificial tree, they cannot be recycled. Instead they will be taken to landfill where they never break down and take up scarce landfill space which has increasingly become a more significant problem globally.

By comparison real trees are farmed and considered an agricultural resource, just like other farmed and agricultural products we rely upon for food. Christmas trees are grown on farms using sustainable practices and are harvested on a regular basis. Christmas trees are not killed as many would suggest and Christmas trees are not cut down from forests where trees were always meant to be.

Real Christmas trees are also farmed on land that is usually not suitable for other crops and instead of leaving the land vacant, the trees planted and grown there stabilize soil, protect water supplies and provide refuge for wildlife while creating scenic green belts. Typical with all other trees, Christmas trees provide a valuable service to our atmosphere too as they absorb carbon dioxide and other gases while emitting oxygen. It’s been estimated that one acre of Christmas trees produces the daily oxygen requirements for 18 people.

Once a tree is chopped down, seedlings are planted to replace it. Often three seedlings are planted for every one tree harvested. When a real tree is removed from a home after Christmas, municipalities then collect them to be fully recycled. Christmas trees will be converted to mulch or wood chips leaving virtually no residual waste.

The selection of real trees often provide economic benefits locally. By visiting a local tree farm to select a tree for example, you support the efforts of local farmers. Furthermore by visiting a local tree farm you reduce the harmful impacts of having trees transported via tractor trailers from across the country.

Lastly, visiting a tree farm to select and harvest a tree yourself can be an incredibly fun family activity. Most farms offer wagon rides to the fields and usually offer things like hot chocolate or cider for families when they get back. It’s a great experience to be out in the fields with your family looking for just the right tree, and it provides some excercise while getting in some fresh air in the process. I find it’s almost magical to be out on a tree farm during a snowfall and my family members all agree.

So there you go! If making responsible and eco-friendly choices are important to you during this holiday season, a real tree as opposed to an artificial tree is the best choice – and one that offers many more residual benefits as well. Have fun and have a Merry Eco-Christmas!

Eric Novak

About Eric Novak

Eric Novak is a father of 4 who also thinks that environmental stewardship is a requisite of parenting. He's not a professional Dad nor is he an environmental scientist, but he's someone who gives a damn and is trying to make the right decisions as he lives his life as a father, environmentalist and business owner. Eric and his wife Karen have 4 children and reside in Ajax, Ontario.