What's the Environmentally Preferable Choice: A Real Christmas Tree or a Faux One?

a small living christmas tree with ornaments next to firewood

Treehugger / Christian Yonkers

Oh, the live vs. fake Christmas tree conundrum. While there are perks and drawbacks to both artificial and live Christmas trees, I suggest going with the real deal.

But hold on to your holiday horses. Before jumping in the car and venturing out to a cut-your-own tree farm (the preference of about 23 percent of Americans) or to a pop-up tree shoppe in a parking lot, I want to share a few thoughts on "keeping it real."

The downsides to real Christmas trees revolve mostly around conventional, pesticide-based agriculture. Despite the trees' seasonality, Christmas tree farming is a massive operation, and to keep the trees healthy, beautiful and pest-free, agricultural chemicals are employed. Since the growing the trees involves chemicals during their lifespan, watershed pollution from contaminated runoff and erosion is a legitimate concern.

But there are local and/or organic tree farms out there that eschew the use of agrochemicals and observe sustainable tree farming methods. Many are even USDA-certified. I recommend perusing LocalHarvest or Green Promise to see if there's one near you. It might be trickier finding an in-town tree lot that specializes in sustainable spruces, but they are out there; let Google give you a hand finding one.

I should also point out that during their short lifespan, Christmas trees (remember, they're farmed as a crop, not plucked from the wild) do a bang-up job of sucking up air pollution. It's estimated that each tree sequesters anywhere from 30 to 400 pounds of CO2 annually. Not too shabby even though a lifecycle analysis report — commissioned, unsurprisingly, by an artificial Christmas tree industry trade group, the American Christmas Tree Association — concluded that an average artificial tree has a smaller carbon footprint than an average farm-grown tree, but only if it's used for roughly five years and the real tree ends up in a landfill.

What you do after Christmas matters

A pared Christmas tree awaiting chipping
Christmas trees can be a great source for mulch once you remove the branches. fotoknips/Shutterstock

Before I move on to why real trees are preferable to faux ones, the issue of waste should be addressed. As you know with fake trees, messy, temporary wastefulness just doesn't exist unless, god forbid, you're switching up new ones every year. To ease the pressure on overwhelmed municipality waste collection services, you can recycle a discarded real tree. Composting the tree is the best way to avoid hauling it the curb. (You need to mulch it first, of course; don't just throw a whole tree into your compost pile!) If the tree is dry, you can also cut it up and use it for firewood. And you should also see if your municipal government or even a local park offers free mulching or drop-off services. (Here's a Christmas tree recycling site for Georgia, for example.)

But here's the reason why real trees are better: Artificial trees, the more popular choice for Americans in recent years, are usually made from PVC — the most egregious type of non-renewable, petroleum-based plastic — and steel. From an environmental standpoint, PVC, or polyvinylchloride, is the pits. Most are also made in Chinese factories. In 2006, an estimated 13 million fake plastic trees were shipped from China to the U.S.

And since you're looking out for the well-being of your new addition, it's worth noting that PVC trees often contain a lead, which is used as a stabilizer. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Health says the average artificial tree does not present a significant exposure risk, but in a worst-case scenario, they may not be kid- or pet-friendly.

So there you go. In defense of faux trees, your partner might go for the "they're less wasteful, easier to store and handle, and cleaner" argument ... all good points and all true. But remember, organic Christmas trees do exist, they can be recycled, they support American agriculture instead of Chinese industrialism, and they won't knock a few points off of Junior's IQ if he sniffs one.

With a little foresight, you can't go wrong with the real thing.