Christmas Trees: Artificial, Fresh, or Living?

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Intro

The holidays are in full swing now, and it’s time to answer that question that comes up every year: should you put up an artificial Christmas tree or a real one? How about one that is still living and can be replanted after the holidays? Here are the pros and cons to consider before you buy a holiday tree.

Christmas tree without decoration, isolated on white with clipping path

Artificial Tree

Artificial trees are primarily made of plastic and metal. Some people consider artificial trees “fake.” Others think they’re fine. Here’s what to consider before you make the choice.

Pros

Convenience:  One of the most popular reasons for buying an artificial tree is the convenience. Once you have it, you can use it for many years, which eliminates the need to go Christmas tree shopping. You can store it away in a box and put it in the garage, attic, or basement with very little hassle or fuss.

They’re an investment: An artificial tree is a one-time purchase, at least as long as it lasts. Rather than spend money on a new tree every year, you only make the purchase once and then not again as long as your tree lasts. That means an artificial tree could save you $100 or $200 a year after the initial purchase.

No need to water or prune:  Artificial trees are maintenance-free. You don’t need to water them to keep them fresh, and you won’t have to prune any errant limbs. Artificial trees are usually perfectly shaped and designed to easily fit into the stand they come with.

Not much cleanup: While fresh trees will drop needles the longer they’re inside, an artificial tree creates less mess—although they still will shed small pieces of plastic.

Cons

Plastic:  The “needles” on artificial trees are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a non-biodegradable, petroleum-derived plastic. A toxic chemical called dioxin is released during PVC production, and it may be released as the plastic needles slowly degrade over time. PVC also contains softening agents called phthalates. Research shows that phthalates are an “endocrine disruptor,” which means they wreak havoc with our hormonal and reproductive systems.

Microplastic: As the plastic needles break down, they don’t degrade—they simply become microplastic. These tiny pieces of plastic are becoming a scourge on the environment, as they’re eaten by wildlife and get into our waterways, where they can eventually get back into our water and food supply.

Lead: The metal in some artificial trees may contain lead. Lead is highly toxic and causes developmental disabilities, including learning disabilities and even mental retardation. Children are particularly susceptible to low levels of lead exposure; toddlers that still crawl around under or near the tree could end up ingesting lead just by crawling through lead dust and putting their fingers in their mouths.

Non-Recyclable: Though some plastic can be recycled, PVC Christmas trees cannot. Once they’re thrown out, they end up landfills.

Non-Biodegradable:  PVC plastic does not biodegrade It simply breaks down into microplastic that is harmful to wildlife and the environment.

Imported from China: Most artificial trees are made in China. Not only is the quality and safety guaranteed, but shipping trees from China has a big carbon footprint.

More flammable:  In a test conducted by a fire department in Farmington Hills, MI, a fake tree and a real tree were both doused with gasoline and lit on fire. The fake plastic tree went up in flames, while the fire caused by the fresh tree was much less destructive.

Christmas tree farm with spruce and fir trees. Summer landscape

Real Trees

Real, or “fresh” trees,’ are grown on tree plantations specifically for the purpose of cutting them down for the holidays.

Pros

Recyclable: 93% of trees sold in North America are recycled into mulch and used in landscaping or chipped for playgrounds, hiking trails, walkways, and possibly even fuel. 100% of a real tree can be recycled so there is no waste.

Reusable:  Homeowners can use the branches of the trees they buy as mulch under their bushes. The tree can also be propped up in the yard and left to become nesting habitat for birds. In Louisiana, discarded Christmas trees are used to support eroding wetlands. In Illinois, they create nesting habitat for herons.

Needles: The needles of the pine, fir, and spruce trees that are common species grown for the holidays make a fragrant potpourri.

Helps reduce climate change: A single farmed tree absorbs more than 1 ton of CO2 through its lifetime.  With 350 million Christmas trees growing on U.S. tree farms alone, real trees can help sequester significant amounts of carbon. Plus, each acre of trees produces enough oxygen to meet the daily needs of 18 people.

Jobs: According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the Christmas tree industry employs more than 100,000 Americans annually.

Buy Local: There are now Christmas tree farms in all 50 states, so you can buy a tree that’s locally grown, which also supports your local economy.

Available organically: Though pesticides may be used to grow Christmas trees, an increasing number of farmers are managing their plantations sustainably, using integrated pest management to minimize the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, and even water they need to cultivate trees.

Fundraisers for local charities: Churches, Boy Scout troops, and local fire departments will often sell cut trees to raise money to support their charitable operations.

Cons

Pesticide applications: Trees are like other crops and may be farmed using pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers—although more and more farmers are adopting sustainable pest management techniques.

Energy-intensive: If you can’t buy a tree that is locally grown, your tree may have had to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to get to your home, using up fossil fuels that, when burned, create air pollution and climate-changing carbon dioxide.

Messy: A fresh-cut tree will drop needles as it dries out. Carrying the tree out of the house can also leave behind a lot of needles, though you can mitigate the impact by wrapping the tree in a sheet before you move it.

Decorated christmas tree in the apartment, with santa bag under it

Living Tree

What if you opt for a living tree you can plant in the ground?

Pros

Plant a tree that will grow for years: Planting a living tree is great for the environment because trees absorb carbon dioxide, generate oxygen, provide natural habitat for birds and wildlife, and filter the air. If you make it a habit to choose living trees for the holidays, over time, you could plant a small forest from your Christmas trees. If you opt to do this, make sure to choose one that will thrive in your landscape once you plant it. Simply dig the hole for the tree before the ground freezes. Keep compost, mulch, and soil at the ready so when you plant the tree, you can add the right amendments to make sure it thrives. Also mulch around the base of the tree to help retain moisture.

Donate your tree:  If you run out of space in your own landscape, you can donate your tree to your community. In fact, if others in your community agree to do the same thing, you’ll create a holiday forest that will benefit your world for decades to come.

Aroma:  You won’t need scented candles or artificial fragrances with an aromatic live tree in the house!

Save money: If you need to plant trees in your yard anyway, diverting the money you’d spend on a cut tree to one you can replant makes good economic sense.

Cons

Short time in the house:  A live tree can spend only about 10 days in the house before it should be planted. If you like to put up your tree right after Thanksgiving and leave it up until the New Year, a living tree probably isn’t the best choice.

Needs frequent watering:  A living tree needs even more water than a cut tree. Because a house is usually warm and dry during the holidays, living trees can dry out quickly. The root ball will need to be kept well-watered, which probably means watering it every day.

Weight: A living tree will either come with a large root ball, or it will be planted in a large container. Either way, even a small tree will be heavy and somewhat awkward to move around.

Smaller size: Because living trees are so heavy, homeowners usually buy smaller trees if they’re going to try to bring them indoors. If you prefer a tree that’s at least 7 feet tall, a cut tree is probably a better bet.

What kind of tree will you be choosing this year? Tell us about it in the comments below!