Fake or Real? The Best Christmas Tree Choice for the Environment Might Surprise You

This holiday season, everything old is green again.

(Photo: Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Dec 1, 2014· 6 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

A few months ago my partner, Colleen, and I moved 3,400 miles from rural Maine to downtown Portland, Ore. The transition required a lot of sacrifices: Among them was our five-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree, which we decided to donate to a local thrift shop rather than pay to have it (and about 2,000 more pounds’ worth of replaceable stuff) shipped across the country via diesel truck.

That left us, for the first time in eight years, needing a new Christmas tree. Of course, not just any old Christmas tree would do. We wanted to find a tree that would have the least environmental impact possible. I didn’t want to drive too far to find one, and we didn’t want something toxic. I also hoped to make a choice that would benefit the local economy. What were our options?

Option 1: Ye Olde Plastic Tree

Our artificial tree had been a purchase of convenience. We had just moved that December too, so we didn’t want to spend a lot of time driving around an unfamiliar area or unpacking our supplies for setting up a live tree and just picked up the first plastic one we saw at the local drugstore. It had built-in lights and was easy to take apart and store, and it served its purpose for the years we had it.

Did we want to go the same route? Artificial trees have one clear advantage over farmed ones: They last a long time. But they also have one clear disadvantage: They last a long time.

Artificial trees are made of PVC plastic and wire, and many come with LED lights. They’re almost impossible to recycle, according to Earth911, and, not surprisingly, the head of the trade group representing tree farmers is not a fan. "An artificial tree is never going to decompose," said Rick Dungey, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association. "It’s always going to end up in a landfill. It’s always going to be an environmental burden."

(Photo: Courtesy Balsam Hill)

Another factor is that every artificial tree I looked at was made in China. A recent study by the NRDC found that an oceangoing cargo vessel from China produces as much pollution as many thousands of trucks. Granted, the carbon footprint of a single fake tree on a container ship the size of a skyscraper is not huge by comparison, but it creates a market demand that leads to greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere at large and pollutants that end up in the oceans and in communities around ports. That didn’t seem in the Christmas spirit.

The artificial-tree industry says this all washes out in the end. A study commissioned by the American Christmas Tree Association, which supports the fake-tree industry, says its trees are greener than cut trees if you own and use them for at least 10 years. It compared 6.5-foot artificial trees and similar-size Fraser firs, a popular species of cut tree grown in the Southeast, and looked at factors such as water use, electricity consumption, and transportation.

Is 10 years too long to expect to own a fake tree? A buying guide provided by the Balsam Hill Christmas Tree Co., which founded the American Christmas Tree Association, suggests that consumers make sure their artificial trees have warrantees of seven years or more.

The artificial trees that I looked at ranged from $100 to $280. Even compared with the priciest natural trees, a plastic one is a good investment (although add-on products, such as storage bags and fake-needle perfumes, can quickly erode any savings). Nevertheless, the transportation factor and the lack of recyclability made my decision: An artificial tree was not for us.

Option 2: A Real, Live—as in Still Living—Christmas Tree

My next thought was that buying a live tree—roots and all—would be the greenest choice. Because trees help produce clean water, Portland encourages residents to plant trees by offering utility customers a $15 to $50 credit for trees planted between September and April.

Weirdly, though, despite Oregon’s rank as the No. 1 grower of Christmas trees in the nation (North Carolina is second), options for acquiring a live tree near me were few. The Home Depot offered several types of Christmas-like live trees, beginning at about $13, but they were only a few feet tall and not suited for decorating. (One was just a jasmine plant trimmed into the shape of a tree.) Local nurseries had better options and bigger trees between $100 and $200, but we realized that this wouldn’t be an answer year in and year out because how many Christmas trees can one yard take?

(Photo: Courtesy LivingChristmasTrees.org)

More appealing was the option to rent a live tree. Such services are available in San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, three more California counties, and even London. (You can check with local nurseries to see if there are options in your area.) A Portland-based group called The Original Potted Christmas Tree Company buys trees from growers every year, rents them to consumers, then sells them to landscapers in January. It charged $95 (pickup and delivery included, which eliminates some of the hassle, though it also takes some of the fun out of it), but it turned out it delivered to almost the entire city—except my zip code. Rats.

(Photo: Darren Staples/Reuters)

Option 3: The Traditional Cut Tree

This led Colleen and me back to farmed trees. About 20 percent of buyers cut their own trees every year, Dungey said. The nearest cut-your-own tree farm was 12 miles away—pretty good considering that if I bought one at a lot, it could easily have come from farther away.

But then, just a few blocks from my house, we found a nonprofit called L’Arche Portland selling trees in a grocery store parking lot. These trees were all donated by local tree farms and priced competitively. The money helps support two homes for people with disabilities. Volunteers setting up their booth on opening day told me the tree sale is one of the organization’s biggest fund-raisers of the year.

We thought this could be a simple way to help our new community while being green.

But how green are cut trees? It turns out that Christmas-tree farms provide a number of environmental benefits. One acre of tree farm produces enough oxygen for 18 people a day, and though that’s according to the Christmas-tree lobby, even if the real figure is half that, the 350,000 acres of trees planted nationally could keep all of Chicago and Pittsburgh breathing. These are trees that arguably would not exist without this market. "Over 330 million trees exist because Christmas-tree farmers planted them," Dungey said. The farms also provide habitat for wildlife and prevent topsoil erosion, he said.

Tree farms, it appears, also could be a major source of carbon sequestration. A 2012 study was the first to quantify this. It found that the soil of natural forests sequesters the most carbon, but tree farms (especially those with additional ground cover, such as grass between the trees) still sequester a lot—much more than if the land was routinely turned over for other agricultural crops.

Christmas-tree farms’ advantage here is that they aren’t tilled between plantings, explained the study’s coauthors, Villanova University professors Samantha Chapman and Adam Langley. Although farming practices vary, most Christmas-tree farms leave stumps in the ground and plant seedlings around them. This allows the old roots to decompose, sequestering much of their carbon. The amount of carbon deposited in the soil varies around the country, but Chapman and Langley said that their tests, conducted in North Carolina, indicated that tree farmers could sequester an average of 6.6 tons of carbon per acre if the farmers also planted around 70 percent ground cover between the trees. That’s roughly the equivalent of six cross-country flights.

Before finalizing my decision, I also wanted to consider what would happen to my tree after Dec. 25. Many of the benefits of cut trees disappear if they are dumped in a landfill at the end of the season, where they decompose and emit CO2. According to Earth911, there are more than 4,000 Christmas-tree recycling programs around the country.

These options are many and varied. Many communities around the country chop up old trees, producing mulch for parks or home use. New York City’s most famous Christmas tree, the one in Rockefeller Center, is turned into a new house for a needy family each year. In the Portland area, dozens of nonprofits collect trees, using them for everything from fuel for paper mills to habitat enhancements for coho salmon. Dungey recommends asking local retailers about recycling options when you buy and storing the information with the tree in case you forget.

Buy Locally If Possible

Not everyone lives in Oregon, where just about every Christmas tree is a local buying choice. Believe it or not, though, Christmas trees are grown in almost every state. Only Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming lack any commercial Christmas-tree harvesting, according to data released earlier this year by the USDA. Even Hawaii harvests more than 2,000 trees a year (although the island state imports thousands more from—you guessed it—Oregon). Each region grows different types of trees, but any should work for hanging decorations, said Dungey.

"The ideal thing, of course, is to buy a more locally grown Christmas tree," Villanova’s Chapman said. This avoids the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from shipping the tree long-distance. That could be a factor in all our shopping for agricultural products: Do you really need apples in April (likely from Chile), fresh blueberries in February (frozen can be just as healthy), or lamb from New Zealand (baa)? There doesn’t seem to be a logical reason to buy an Oregon tree if you live in Florida (a small percentage of them end up there, according to the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association).

The Ultimate Decision

In the end, we decided the L’Arche benefit tree sale was the best choice. Their locally grown trees cost a bit more than similar offerings at retailers such as The Home Depot, but I know the money will go to a good cause. That’s not only green—it’s definitely in the spirit of the season.