Why Real Trees Trump Plastic in the Christmas Tree Debate!

Experts say artificial trees must be recycled for up to 20 years to better real Christmas trees! And if they are potted, trees win out all the time!

Fri 22 Dec 23


It’s that time of year again with debate over whether it is better to opt for a real or fake Christmas tree.

But such trees can also become a source of stress as the realities of climate change become more acute and tangible. 

Many might wonder: Is it a good idea to buy a cut-down tree all the while CO2 rises at an unprecedented rate, forest fires burn stronger and longer, and rising sea levels threaten coastal communities?

The answer might surprise you. 

Experts claim that the natural tree is often better for the environment if given the choice of artificial or natural. But it could be a more straightforward answer, as what’s better depends on many variables.

They’re the ultimate Christmas decoration, and millions, if not billions are bought worldwide. But what impact do Christmas trees – natural and artificial – have on the environment? – footage courtesy of @BBCNews.

Carbon Trust, a US-based environmental organisation, claims that for an artificial tree to be considered the “better option”, the tree must be reused over many years — recycled in the vicinity of 7 and 20 years.

According to Jill Sidebottom, a horticulturist and spokesperson for the US-based National Christmas Tree Association, people should feel good about buying real Christmas trees for several reasons.

 First, she said Christmas tree farms help sustain wildlife.

“To me, the biggest thing is that Christmas tree farms keep land from being developed,” which provides habitat for birds, rabbits and predators. “I always saw more wildlife working in trees than hiking.”

As well as providing biodiversity benefits, tree farms are good for local economies, which can help lower carbon footprints.

“People coming into areas to cut their Christmas trees may also visit restaurants or shop in nearby towns,” she said. “That’s a big boost to the economy and prolongs the tourist season.

In addition, trees can effectively act like “carbon farms”, with the carbon sequestered during the growth and harvesting driving our nature-based economy.

And when it comes to the sustainability of real trees, it ultimately boils down to buying and recycling locally.

Woods and trees are the best ways to capture and store atmospheric carbon – with Christmas tree plantations acting as “carbon farms.” But how do they do it? Here’s the science made simple – footage courtesy of @woodlandtrust.

Most communities collect trees after Christmas and mulch them so they don’t end up in landfills. This action not only lowers the carbon footprint of the trees but creates a circular forest product that can facilitate further regeneration. 

By contrast, some significant issues of recyclability with artificial trees exist. If the artificial tree is made of plastic and metals, it’s harder to recycle – with a growing movement pushing for artificial trees to be created from recycled waste products!

Notably, most artificial trees are made up of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is known as an endocrine-disrupting chemical. One study published in 2004 even found a possible risk of lead exposure to young children in some artificial trees.

Chal Landgren, a retired Christmas tree specialist at Oregon State University who owns a Christmas tree farm, told US media that trees are carbon sequesters, meaning they store carbon in new growth yearly.

 In other words, it’s good for the environment to have more trees, and Christmas tree farmers are in the business of planting more trees. 

However, he emphasised that the effectiveness of Christmas trees being carbon sequesters largely depends on how far people travel to acquire their trees. 

The potential carbon that the trees could suck could be mitigated by the carbon emissions released from driving to the farm.

Today, most people celebrate Christmas with a fake tree – likely purchased from Amazon, and the trend is only getting bigger – footage courtesy of @FutureProofTV.

That’s not to say that farmed Christmas trees are without toxins. 

They’ve likely been sprayed with insecticides and pesticides as growers attempt to keep them appearing fresh. However, Mr Landgren said the pesticides would have been used at least five months ago.

“By Christmas, those should be pretty much non-toxic,” he said. 

“Those things to worry about would be pretty far down on the list for both trees.”

Few consumers might realise there is a third, more sustainable option, and it’s once again a real Christmas plant — it just looks a little different. 

living Christmas tree is a potted tree that someone can adopt for the holiday season. In some cases, consumers keep and replant them themselves; in others, they rent them, often from urban forestry nonprofits, replanting them outside after Christmas and re-integrating them into the urban canopy.

“I typically think about climate change with my research, and anything that slows the rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a positive thing in my mind,” said Clint Springer, the director of Environmental Science and Sustainability Studies and associate professor at St. Joseph’s University.

 “And that’s a tree that lives a long and happy life so that a potted tree would be best.”


  • Jason Ross

    Jason Ross, publisher, is a 15-year professional in building and construction, connecting with more than 400 specifiers. A Gottstein Fellowship recipient, he is passionate about growing the market for wood-based information. Jason is Wood Central's in-house emcee and is available for corporate host and MC services.


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