Is one of your family Christmas traditions traveling to your local tree farm and cutting a fresh Christmas tree? Or do you drag a dusty box out of the attic and pull the plastic collapsible Christmas tree out of it?

Family traditions aside, the question every year is: plastic or real? What is the best environmental choice for a Christmas tree?

In 1930 the U.S.-based Addis Brush Company created the first artificial Christmas tree made from brush bristles. The company used the same machinery that it used to manufacture toilet brushes, but they were dyed green.
University of Illinois Extension

According to the American Christmas Tree Association, 95 million U.S. households will celebrate Christmas this year with a live or fake Christmas tree in their home. Roughly 50 million Christmas trees, whether live or fake, will be sold for the holiday celebration.

Of those 50 million Christmas trees, real trees will number about 27 million and fake trees 21 million. Real Christmas trees will be mostly Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Noble fir, Fraser fir, Balsam fir, Virginia pine or White pine, available in one color: green (or various shades of green). Fake trees are available in a multitude of colors, from white to green to gold to pink and more, some with lights built-in, and most are easy to collapse and store.

Are fake Christmas trees or real Christmas trees more eco-friendly?

There is an argument to be made for each.

The annual carbon emissions associated with using a real tree every year were just one-third of those created by an artificial tree over a typical six-year lifespan. Most fake trees also contain polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which produces carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal..
New York Times

Supporters of buying plastic Christmas trees made of PVC (Polyvinyl chloride), steel, and aluminum, manufactured and shipped from China, claim that fake trees have a lower carbon footprint if their owners hold on to them for six to 10 years. This is when compared to the energy needed to cut and transport fresh trees and the carbon released into the atmosphere when a tree is cut.

But complicating the argument for plastic is the difficulty of recycling that Christmas tree, which is usually tossed into a landfill where it will sit for (literally) a century or more. Polyvinyl chloride is difficult to impossible to recycle and so must be trashed.

Advocates for buying a real Christmas tree argue that cutting fresh fir, pine, and spruce trees has benefits beyond that classic holiday smell. Purchasing from a Christmas tree farm supports local farmers who plant acres of trees that absorb carbon dioxide from the air, manage polluted storm-water runoff before it pours into waterways, and provide habitat for wildlife.

Real Christmas trees, they argue, have a smaller carbon footprint than plastic trees. Environmental groups estimate that an acre of fir trees absorbs more than 11,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually and that carbon emissions created by families traveling to buy or cut a fresh Christmas tree pales in comparison to the carbon output created by artificial trees manufactured and shipped from China and eventually landfilled. Also, real trees can be recycled in a multitude of ways for everything from wood chip mulch to wildlife habitats.

Christmas tree facts:

  • In the U.S., Christmas trees are grown on farms and are not cut from forests.
  • A typical Christmas tree of 6-feet takes just under a decade to grow, and once it’s cut down, the farmer will usually plant at least one in its place.
  • Real trees can be recycled as mulch, compost, erosion barriers or wildlife habitats.
  • Live Christmas trees provide many benefits to the environment as they grow, cleaning the air and providing watersheds and habitats for wildlife. They grow best on hills that are often unsuitable for other crops.
  • Oregon is the U.S.’s biggest grower, followed by North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
  • An acre of Christmas trees provides the daily oxygen requirements of 18 people.
  • Most artificial trees are made of PVC, aluminum, and steel in China, shipped to the United States, and eventually sent to a landfill.
  • The American Christmas Tree Association claims that the environmental impact for an artificial Christmas tree is lower than that of a real tree if you use the artificial tree five or more years. The group argues that cutting a real tree each year and possibly disposing of it in a landfill at the end of the season has a bigger impact on greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy use than a reused artificial tree does.

Fake vs real Christmas tree carbon footprint research

A study by AVNIR, a collaborative research platform, Comparative Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Of Artifical VS Natural Christmas Tree, puts the carbon footprint argument into perspective: “the emitted CO2 over the entire life cycle are approximately 3.1 kg CO2 per year for the natural tree and 8.1 kg CO2 per year for the artificial tree (48.3 kg for its entire life span). These CO2 emissions roughly correspond to driving an average car (150 g/km) 125 km and 322 km, respectively. Therefore, carpooling or biking to work only one to three weeks per year would offset the carbon emissions from both types of Christmas trees.”

So there you have it – not much difference in the carbon footprint. Which leaves 1) the necessity of the landfill for disposal and 2) the inability to recycle as the biggest downside for artificial Christmas trees. Personally, I’m a real Christmas tree man. What’s your preference?