What’s Better for the Earth: A Fake Tree or a Real One?

Enter stage left, the obvious arguments for both sides.

“Cutting down trees and throwing them away every year is bad for the environment!” Okay, fair.

Yeah, but buying artificial trees made of plastic and copper is bad for the environment!” Oh, interesting, yeah. That, too.

Whether you cherish the woodsy smell of a dying pine tree slowly crisping in the living room, or you choose to take up a good chunk of space in the attic with a disassembled imposter each year, you probably have a strong opinion on the matter. But personal preference (to which there is no right answer, anyway) aside, when it comes to picking the greener option, there actually is a better way forward.

The argument for the homegrown-loyalists: cutting down Christmas trees isn’t bad for the environment because they’ve been growing for years, cleaning the air, and enriching the soil. Plus, farms will always replant in their place. Christmas trees generally grow on rolling hills that usually won’t provide well for other crops, so the manmade forest provides watersheds and homes for the area’s wildlife. Not to mention the fact that these trees are (obviously) biodegradable and offer a good opportunity to stimulate the local economy in the process of buying them. Okay, so all good news, right? Well, not necessarily. Considering the amount of planting, fertilizing, and watering that has to go into maintaining Christmas tree farms, it’s often a valid concern that the environmental impact of maintaining the trees is less than ideal.

Now those in favor of fakery, say that fake trees have a leg up on real trees as far as environmental friendliness goes because they can be reused. And it’s true – despite being made of not-so-ecological materials, like melted plastic and metal that are nearly impossible to separate in order to recycle, fake trees can be the more environmental option when reused over time. That is, as long as they’re reused for enough time. According to the American Christmas Tree Association, as long as an artificial tree is used for five years or more, the environmental impact is actually lower than purchasing a new tree each year. And for the most part, families that choose to invest in a fake tree – especially a high-quality one – tend to use those trees for an average of 10 years, which is double what the ACTA recommends to make a fake tree the better environmental choice. Some luxury artificial tree brands like Balsam Hill even expect that their customers will be using their trees for 20-30 years before needing to replace them, making it a lot less problematic that the company has yet to create an easily recyclable tree.

So what’s the best option for celebrating Yuletide while preserving Mother Earth? Surprisingly, it might be to opt for a good quality fake tree that you can use for years to come (and that you should donate, as opposed to disposing of, when you’re ready to replace it). Of course, given that neither option is entirely environmentally-friendly and really just comes down to approach, you could still responsibly go the real tree route by, for example, later recycle your tree in a program like NYC’s Mulchfest, where city trees are chipped up to be used as planting materials for parks and other outdoor city areas.

But let’s be clear: in the grand scheme of the holiday season, air travel and intense consumerism will cause a lot more damage than your Douglas Fir anyway, whether he’s wilting or waxy. Talk about raining – err, snowing – on our holiday parade.