Myth: Fake Trees Are the Eco-Friendly Choice

To be real or not to be real? That is the age-old Christmas tree question.

Well, okay, “age-old” might be a bit extreme, considering that the modern take on artificial Christmas trees didn’t hit the stage until the 1930s, when the clever folks at the Addis Brush Company used toilet brush bristles to create the modern artificial tree.

But for many, the question is just as much of a head-scratcher as ever. While experts are saying real trees win out in the green department, there are arguments on both sides—and strong opinions on this topic are not unusual.

Team Keep It Real vs. Team Go Faux

Both teams have their own reason to cheer. Among the motivations people cite for going faux: economic (buying something once a decade versus every year is obviously cheaper), conscience (some people feel sad about cutting down a perfectly healthy tree), and environmental (using the same tree for decades means you have less to throw out).

Meanwhile, keeping it real can be a fun nostalgia-fest every year, provides a festive scent in your home, and gets you a tad bit more in touch with nature. What’s more, there are some pretty powerful benefits of having more trees around, even if they do end up sticking out of metal contraptions on our living room floors.

Horticulturist Carrie Tauscher, BS, BLM, of the Morton Arboretum’s Community Trees Program, is decidedly Team Keep It Real. She’s got a number of reasons to back this up, but at the core of her belief is the fact that buying a real tree means “supporting a renewable resource.”

And she’s not alone. A number of forest-supporting organizations, including American Forests, the Nature Conservancy, and the Sierra Club have all come out in support of real trees.

Canadian firm Ellipsos also votes real, having conducted a life cycle assessment that found that a real tree wins out unless an artificial tree is kept at least 20 years…which, as Tauscher points out, is not anecdotally what happens. “No one keeps them as long as they’re supposed to because they can get dusty and rundown looking, so it’s not likely you’ll keep it long enough to make up for the petroleum and shipping needed to get it home.”

Yep, artificial trees have a few eco-odds stacked against them. Most are made of PVC—you know, the thermoplastic polymer that gets such a bad rap for being carcinogenic during the manufacturing and disposal process. Plus, most ‘em are made in China, meaning extra energy and resources are needed not only for production, but also for shipping. There’s the missing pine scent factor, too, so plenty of people opt for artificial home scents, many which are packed with sketchy chems. And, the icing on the cake: they are completely nonrecyclable. Those guys will sit around in landfills for centuries. Not exactly the happy ending you’d want for your tree.

On the other hand, the real deal isn’t perfect either. Many Christmas tree farms use pesticides (though there are of course some local exceptions, such as Ben’s Tree Farm and Pioneer Tree Farm. Tauscher explains that this pesticide use is strictly regulated by the USDA, so it’s not like growers are “just blasting them with stuff for fun.” But there are definitely some very harmful effects of pesticide use on the environment, some of which EcoMyths has already explored.

There can also be transportation issues with a real tree, depending on geography. Some regions don’t have the right conditions for evergreens, so they’re trucked in from afar, meaning you guessed it, more gas, more emissions, etc. than if it was grown nearby. And driving too far to pick yours out can also ratchet up that environmental footprint. Luckily those aren’t Chicagoland problems, says Tauscher. “We have wonderful neighbors directly to the north and east that have perfect Christmas tree growing conditions. Evergreens like sandy, slightly acidic soil for the most part, and Indiana and Wisconsin have those soils so trees available here are still very local.”

Real Trees Have Real Eco-Perks

It’s pretty much a no-brainer that trees are generally good for the planet, thanks to their knack for oxygen production, carbon sequestration, and particulate consumption.

Since the typical Christmas tree takes between five and 15 years to achieve its home-friendly height, that means we’re all getting those perks for a fairly substantial period of time. Plus, as Tauscher points out, “whoever planted it is planting another right away.” For every 25-30 million of the real trees that are sold in the U.S. each year, there’s another 325+ million trees still growing on those same farms, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. It’s the tree grower’s business to keep those tree lots full of growing trees.

For all you sentimental folks who feel bad cutting down a tree, read our lips: it’s all good.

“These trees are grown to be cut down,” says Tauscher. “It’s not like you’re going out to a forest to cut them down. It’s not a forest at all; it’s an agricultural field you’re harvesting a crop from…it’s just that that crop takes between five and 15 years to produce.

“It’s the same as with things like a broccoli. When you pick it, you kill the plant. It’s a commodity as a crop and so we can appreciate it for the time, effort and benefits it has given off while it is living and then put it to a good use. Appreciating the process is huge—the fact that there have been people that spend their careers growing little pine seedlings and growing them up because people love them is huge.”

And speaking of appreciation, Tauscher says there’s also value in the mere fact of being that much closer to real nature than with a fake tree. “When you and maybe your kids get to see a real tree, you’re up close and personal with it for however many weeks you have it in your home, and you’ll learn a little about it. You’ll probably learn the difference between spruces and firs, one is spiky and makes you bleed a little more. One of the tricks of recognizing is ‘firs are friendly.’ If you can grab it and shake it and not get hurt by it, it’s a fir. Spruces are prickly and pines have long needles. It’s valuable to appreciate the differences…all those things you might not learn if you don’t get that experience.”

But the bottom line for Tauscher is that “if you buy a real one, you know it can go back into the earth, whereas with a fake tree, you know it’s going back in the landfill. There’s no artificial tree recycling. The earth recycles itself, it knows how to use its own resources. So mulch it yourself or drop it off to an organic waste center, and it’ll go back to the carbon cycle,” she concludes.

EcoMyth Outcome: Myst Busted

In Chicagoland, it’s greener to keep it real, unless you’ve already got a fake one and intend to hang on to it. That’s because the trees are grown in the region, their carbon-neutral growth has clear environmental benefit, and they’re 100 percent recyclable.

Do One Green Thing

If you’re on the market for a new tree this year, consider going real. If you’ve already got an artificial tree, dust if off and enjoy it! When it’s time to put it away, make sure you store it safely and in a clean space so you can enjoy it for years to come—ideally, 20 years is best.

Other solid eco-actions include:

Recycle or re-use your real tree after the holidays. Christmas trees can be recycled to make sand and soil erosion barriers, and for fish habitat. Most municipalities around Chicagoland schedule tree pick-up dates, or you can drop them off most anytime to places like the Chicago Park District. Or, if you’ve got a yard and a wood chipper, just mulch it yourself!

Visit the Morton Arboretum for a reminder of just how breathtaking evergreens can be.