Real vs Artificial Christmas Trees: An Easier Choice Than You Think

Photo by Joern Haufe/Getty Images

A man pulls out a Christmas tree he chose and cut down himself in a forest on December 8, 2012 in Fischbach, Germany.

Well, the debate is over. When it comes to picking a low-impact holiday tree, it turns out the choice between fake and artificial trees, call it a wash. A peer reviewed study released last year compared carbon footprints of artificial and natural trees. The findings showed that the difference in environmental impact between the two is negligible, with artificial trees having a slightly larger impact.

The study unpacked several consumer myths about holiday trees. The reality is that cutting down or buying a Christmas tree has less of an environmental impact than the daily impact of someone living for one day in the United States.

Also, a popular argument against artificial trees has been found false. Some have argued in the past that artificial trees have a bigger impact if they are made in China and shipped into the United States.

“The reality is that the long distance transport from China is pretty efficient,” says Laura Morrison, a Senior Consultant at PE International. She worked on the study and says that consumers should be more concerned about how far they drive personally to purchase their tree. Even if the tree has been shipped in from another state, it’s the personal drive home that significantly increases the carbon output.

“At the end of the day, truck transport is still much more efficient than driving your car,” Morrison says.

Another Christmas behavior that can make a significant difference is how the tree is decorated. The use of tree lights has a larger impact than the tree itself.

“From an environmental perspective, the use of LED lights is a low-hanging fruit that’s very easy for people,” says Morrison. She says changing the tree lights is a good way to lessen a holiday carbon footprint. “Using lights on your tree has a pretty big impact compared to the production of the tree itself. One big way to save is to switch from incandescent to LED lights,” she says. LED lights have roughly one-sixth the impact of incandescent lights.

Morrison also added that consolidating shopping trips is another highly effective way to stay environmentally minded during the Christmas season. Trying to do as much shopping as possible in one car trip is a way to lessen CO2 emissions into the air, for a cleaner, less-wasteful Christmas.

Want More? Read our follow-up story, Readers Respond: Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees

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Comments

  • Benjamin Benedict

    I’ve had the same fake tree for the past 10 years… got it because I thought it’d be less messy, saves money, and saves real trees from being cut down.
    ENH! I’ve found that… the fake tree needles can shed as much as the real ones, what I paid for the best quality fake tree is comparable to buying a real tree every year for 7 years, and the farmed x-mas trees are going to get chopped down anyway… why let those go to waste?
    I’m going back to real trees again next year… I’ll buy them from a local church charity that sells them, I’ll make sure it’s recycled into mulch, and I’ll enjoy the fresh scent of an evergreen fir in my cozy living room.

  • republicans4npr

    This article told us very little. What about the entire ecological footprint? Something tells me that a petroleum product that will be around for a few hundred years made with toxic materials is NOT the same as a naturally grown tree. There is more to this story.

  • Greener Options

    There is a third option of buying a live potted tree from a local nursery. Our family started this tradition five years ago when we were looking for an earth friendly alternative.
    We had our first tree for 3 years and finally planted it in the yard with the kids when it got too big to move in and out. We all have enjoyed watching it continue to grow, just like our kids have been. It’s now about 20 ft. tall.
    Last year we purchased our second tree which we figure will last us another year or two.

    They can be a bit more than a cut tree initially. However, you get a few Christmas’ out of it and a nice tree for the yard that will last a lifetime or more. Helping to remove more carbon from the air.

    A few years ago there was an article online about someone who rented out live trees too. Not sure if that’s still happening.

    Fake trees will always look like fake trees and never decompose. They will only be more land fill fodder. Seeing so many trees cut down and then tossed to the curb the day after Christmas is heartbreaking and wasteful.
    Try a live one. You won’t regret it and neither will your kids or the planet!

  • Cherri B

    republicans4npr: I agree with you that there is more to the story. Peer-reviewed by whom? What journal? Funding? Conflicts? Precise questions? Findings? Going to go read it now. We’ve had our fake tree for over two decades, switched to LED lights, isn’t plastic, and few know the difference when they see it except for the fam. lol.

    • Cherri B

      *Laffin* “The study was sponsored by the American Christmas Tree Association
      (ACTA) a non-profit organization representing artificial Christmas tree
      retailers and real Christmas tree retailers, to clear up common
      misperceptions about the environmental impacts of Christmas trees.”

      Maybe if it were a journal, an APA or other peer-reviewed journal with reputation and results for objective and unbiased research, the results would have some credibility.

      Still and all, Thanks Muchly NPR for a great invite to looking for more facts, discussing, commenting, and making more informed decisions. Kudos for that.

    • elizTrovall

      Cherri, thank you for your comment! The journal was peer-reviewed by professors at North Carolina State University and Carnegie Mellon University as well as a plastics specialist on the American Chemistry Council. You can read their response about the study on page 87 of the report. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/541025-acta-christmas-tree-lca-final-report-november-2010.html I also want to add that your comment was used in another follow-up post regarding questions like yours. http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/2012/12/18/reader-response-real-vs-artificial-christmas-trees/

  • schwarzey

    How about a nice bouquet of flowers?

  • Guest

    I would prefer no tree, but I am confident in saying that a fake tree which lasts many decades is much better than a real tree with will die or be thrown out.

    • edsullivan

      But it smells like plastic. Real trees are natural air fresheners in the house.

  • Lerkero

    I would prefer no tree, but I am confident in saying that a fake tree
    which lasts many decades is much better than a real tree with will die
    or be thrown out. Maybe the real tree can be used for creating fires, but even that seems like it is wasteful in terms of net energy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.sines.1 Dan Sines

    Real trees (with a small number of exceptions) come from farms. They are a crop, not unlike any other crop we have really no qualms about harvesting. By and large these are not forest trees. This is land that would be in production for something. Do we need Christmas trees? No. We don’t need to spread petrochemicals over millions of acres because people want to eat cheap beef but many millions do that unthinkingly every day. I’d much rather walk through a tree farm than a box store. And you can’t compost a plastic tree.

  • GammaWave

    I’m not sure why are we still discussing any issues about the “man made global warming” (tax) scam and “carbon footprint”. Maybe the almighty mayor of NYC Mr. Bloomberg should tell us all what kind of tree we can have, and how big it should be?

  • TomF

    Some actual numbers would be helpful here: truck mpg, # of trees on a truck, etc.

  • KL

    Don’t forget that buying real trees supports family farms, providing income that can be used to keep these areas open instead of turned into malls or subdivisions.

  • babby660

    A potted Norfolk Island Pine makes a nice allternative

  • http://www.facebook.com/jwcrissman James W. Crissman

    How did they figure the life of the artificial tree? Is it a wash in year 1? If so, the fake tree wins every year after that.

    • edsullivan

      Only if you wash it, store it properly in a bag, and keep gluing needles back on constantly.

    • elizTrovall

      “The break-even number of years for Global Warming Potential is 3.6 and 4.0 years for an incinerated and composted natural tree, respectively. In other words, if the artificial tree is kept more than 4 years, the Global Warming Potential associated with the artificial tree is less than the natural tree purchased every year for more than 4 years…” https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/541025-acta-christmas-tree-lca-final-report-november-2010.html Thanks for your comment!

  • http://twitter.com/BenGaieck Ben Gaieck

    There must be a payoff period and a positive balance if you use the artificial tree over and over again for many years. (Also, artificial trees are less likely to catch fire and burn down your house).

    • edsullivan

      But they look like crap after a few years. Keep a can of spray paint handy.

    • elizTrovall

      “The break-even number of years for Global Warming Potential is 3.6 and 4.0 years for an incinerated and composted natural tree, respectively. In other words, if the artificial tree is kept more than 4 years, the Global Warming Potential associated with the artificial tree is less than the natural tree purchased every year for more than 4 years…” https://www.documentcloud.org/… Thanks for your comment!

  • edsullivan

    What cannot be described is the fragrance from a Balsam or Douglas Fir tree. It is the best possible air freshener and increases as time goes on. I keep mine up until April or until all the needles drop off, then scoop them up and place into potpourri dishes around the house. I keep it well away from any warm objects (the kids are all grown) and have 3 large fire extinguishers in the room.

    Every day for the duration, when I walk in the front door of my house, I am hit in the face with heaven. And I thank God for it.

  • elizTrovall

    There’s a follow-up post that addresses some of your reactions here: http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/2012/12/18/reader-response-real-vs-artificial-christmas-trees/ Thank you for your questions!

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