Real Christmas Trees or Fake Ones: Which is More Eco-Friendly?

This time of year, everyone seems to debate over the same thing: Which is more eco-friendly, real Christmas trees or fake ones? Often times, people believe they are making a better choice for the environment by getting a fake tree. They say “I’m saving a tree from being cut down, so isn’t that a good thing?” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There are a variety of factors to consider. In order for a artificial tree to be environmentally friendly, you’d have to use it for several years. To put it shortly, real Christmas trees are more eco-friendly and sustainable. But in order to make sure you make the most earth-friendly choice this holiday season, I crafted a handy guide that gives you all the details you need to know about real trees and fake trees. Here’s what you need to know.



Fake Trees: Pros + Cons
Real Christmas Trees
Here are some facts about fake trees you need to know.
  • Fake tress are reusable, cheap, and never drop needles all over the living room floor.
  • They’re typically easier to set up: Some even come pre-decorated. 
  • They’re perfect for those who are allergic to pine trees. Or just don’t like the possibility of bugs creeping out of the trees.
  • Fake trees are made out of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a non-recyclable plastic. PVC has also been linked to several health and environmental problems.
  • PVC is heavy in chlorine content, which means dioxins are released during the manufacturing, burning, or landfilling of PVC. Exposure to dioxins can cause reproductive, developmental, and other health problems. At least one dioxin is classified as a carcinogen. Not exactly the present you wanted for Christmas, right?
  • Fake trees may also be manufactured with lead and other toxic additives. Yuck. 
  • Some artificial trees on the market are not made with PVC, but instead, Polyethylene plastic (or PE). These are said to be less toxic, but they’re not easy to find. 
  • More than 85 percent of artificial Christmas trees in the U.S. are imported from China. This significantly enlarges their carbon footprint. 
  • An artificial tree needs to be used for several years in order to make it more environmentally friendly. According to forester Bill Cook, you would have to use a fake tree at least eight to nine years for it to even come close to being as eco-friendly as a real Christmas tree.
  • However, a 2009 study out of Montreal concluded it would take more than 20 years of use to make an artificial tree a more eco-friendly choice


How to choose a more eco-friendly fake tree
Hopefully, you can see from the facts listed above that fake trees aren’t known for being eco-friendly. However, if you must get a fake tree, here’s how to make sure it’s as sustainable as possible.
  • Buy a tree that’s not made from PVC. Whether it be a PE tree, or creative non-plastic Christmas trees, you should do your best to avoid PVC. 
  • Make sure to buy one with a “Made in USA” label: This will decrease the tree’s carbon footprint (seeing how most fake trees are made in China and flown to the U.S.). 
  • If you do get a fake tree, make sure you plan to use it for a while! In order for a plastic tree to be as environmentally friendly as a real tree, it would need to be kept anywhere from eight to twenty years. If you’re not sure you can use it for that duration of time, it’s probably not worth investing in. 
  • Don’t drive long distances to get your fake tree: This will only increase carbon emissions thanks to the fumes your car releases. Instead, buy a fake tree that’s being sold near your home.
Real Trees: Pros + Cons

Real Christmas Trees

Now that we’ve looked at the facts regarding fake trees, it’s time to look at the facts regarding real trees.
  • Almost all real Christmas trees are grown on farms (about 350 million trees to be exact), so very few of them come from forests anymore. This is good because it leaves forests that contain pine trees untouched. 
  • Christmas tree farms are located in all 50 states, making fresh real Christmas trees easy to find locally. Buying real trees also helps support small local farmers.
  • At the end of the holiday season, trees can be mulched up and used to feed plants. Or, they can be composted. Either way, most towns and cities have curbside pick-up options for recycling real Christmas trees, or drop-off centers.
  • You can also turn your tree into a DIY project, come the end of the season. If you’re feeling crafty, try your hand at creating decorations and coasters with the branches and trunk of your tree. Or, perhaps try replanting it (assuming the root ball is still intact).
  • Christmas tree farms can also serve as important habitats for local birds, insects and other wildlife. In fact, if you go to a Christmas tree farm that lets you cut the tree down, always make sure to check the tree thoroughly: You might find a bird’s nest in there! I speak from experience (it happened to my boyfriend).
  • Real trees smell great. No can of artificial Christmas tree scent can top that.
  • Christmas trees do have pest problems and are usually grown with pesticides that are toxic to wildlife. In some cases, they’re also toxic to humans. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has banned indoor use of the pesticides used on Christmas trees, such as chlorpyrifos and malathion. 
  • Lugging a Christmas tree up and down stairs can be tedious (I speak from personal experience).
  • The pine needles really do get everywhere, but they’re easy to clean up.

How to choose a more eco-friendly real tree
The facts are in, and there are a lot more pros than cons to buying a real tree vs. a fake tree. That said, here are some ways to ensure you get the most out of real Christmas trees.
  • Buy your real tree local: Research shows that driving to get your tree often has more environmental impact than the tree itself. Make sure to buy yours close to home or pick it up on a trip you were going to make anyway. Buying local also helps support your community’s growers and businesses. Here’s a comprehensive list of farms in the U.S. that sell real Christmas trees so you can easily find one near you
  • To avoid pesticides, consider buying an organic Christmas tree near you.
  • If there are any fallen needles or branches on your tree, you can make some needle potpourri out of them. Just fill a bowl with the fallen needles and add some lemon and orange rind, a cinnamon stick, whole cloves and nutmeg to the mix. To store it, place it in a jar or wrap it in newspaper. 
  • When the season ends, make sure to have your tree recycled or composted. You might even be able to find a mulching and chipping program near you that let you take home a free bag of mulch for your garden. There’s nothing more wasteful than sending it straight to a landfill. You can even look into crafting some DIYs with the tree (like the potpourri recipe above). 
  • Reuse ornaments from previous years to decorate the tree, or make DIY natural Christmas ornaments from objects found in nature.


Conclusion: Get a real tree
Real Christmas Trees
If it’s not obvious already, real Christmas trees are the best choice for the environment. That said, what you do with it and how you get it really do make a difference. It’s important to recycle and compost your tree after use: Don’t just just toss it out. That kind of defeats the purpose. Also, make sure you’re not driving too far to get your real tree: The carbon emissions from your car will be less if you buy from a local business. 
If you already have an artificial Christmas tree, don’t fret. You can always donate your artificial tree to a hospital, office, or friend who will appreciate it. Then, be sure to get yourself a real tree next year. Trust me when I say the planet will thank you.

By Ariana Storniolo (Palmieri)

Ariana Storniolo is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste and sustainability. Her work has also been featured on Going Zero Waste, Green Matters, Mother Earth Living and several other online publications.


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