In 2015, just under 26 million real Christmas trees were sold in the U.S. alone. Paired with the 12.5 million fake trees purchased that year, it is clear that Americans are huge tree consumers every holiday season. But more and more Americans are opting for plastic trees, with an estimated 60 to 80 percent of American households having one. Plastic trees last for years and appear more environmentally-friendly at first glance, but are they actually better than real trees? Let’s take a look:
Your average real tree runs anywhere between $30 and $100+ each year, while an artificial tree costs anywhere between $50 and $800+, depending on the quality and how real you want it to look. According to the Christmas Tree Association, most Americans spend around $50 on a real tree or around $100 on an artificial tree. In terms of direct cost, an artificial tree makes a lot more sense because it lasts for many years.
All the money you save with an artificial tree begins to look paltry once you realize that artificial trees are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a petroleum-based plastic. PVC contains hormone disrupting chemicals and creates the toxic chemical known as dioxin as a byproduct when heated. On the other hand, real trees are often sprayed with pesticides like Roundup, so be aware and ask your farmer.
Real trees are a carbon neutral, renewable resource. You cut one down, the farmer plants a new one. What causes many concern is the fact that millions of trees around the world get cut every year just to sit inside our houses. Is that really sustainable? Certainly more so than fake trees.
The vast majority of real holiday trees come from tree farms (hopefully sustainably managed ones). Of course it would be more sustainable to just let the trees grow, but if we all stopped buying holiday trees, we wouldn’t be saving the trees. That is an unrealistic fantasy. The tree farm land would be cleared to make way for some other profitable crop. Tree farms exist so that trees can be cut down, farmers can make a profit and wild trees are preserved.
If the demand drops, trees wouldn’t be allowed to grow on tree farms. They would likely be bulldozed, and all the trees would be lost. If you’re that concerned about trees, take the most sustainable route and go plant some in your own backyard to harvest in future years (and use Ecosia, a search engine that plants trees for you). But, consider this: cutting a tree down from a tree farm is actually supporting the existence of thousands of trees in that tree farm. Compare that to the fact that fake trees are petroleum-based, and there shouldn’t be any argument as to which is more sustainable.
Unfortunately, post-holiday, many people just throw their tree into the landfill. In artificial trees, PVC cannot be recycled and will just sit in a landfill for the next thousand years, leaching chemicals into the earth. But, real trees are biodegradable and very recyclable. In fact, the best thing to do is to recycle them into rich mulch or let them degrade naturally in your backyard. Real trees definitely win this one.
While a real tree is usually relatively local, artificial trees often must be shipped much longer distances to reach their holiday homes. This means they probably consume more fossil fuels in the realm of transportation. Top that with the fossil fuels used in their production, and it becomes clear that artificial trees rely heavily on nonrenewable resources. Yes, these same resources are used on tree farms in tending to the trees and afterwards in transporting them to people’s homes, but real trees are not as inextricably linked to fossil fuels as fake trees are.
While artificial trees can look a lot like the real thing and don’t shed needles, nothing can top that fresh, resin-y smell of the real thing. Ah, the scent of the holidays!
When it comes down to it, both real and artificial trees have an environmental impact, but it’s clear that artificial trees are actually a bit less sustainable than the real deal. What kind of tree do you prefer?