Your Artificial Christmas Tree May Be Doing More Harm Than Good

by Megan Grant
Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Rockin' around the artificial Christmas tree... Wait, that's not what I meant. O artificial Christmas tree, o artificial Christmas tree... Whatever. You get the idea. This year, I dusted off the box containing my fake tree, assembled it in my living room, and — if I may toot my own horn for a minute — it looks fabulous. I initially bought it years ago because (a) it was cheap, (2) it was easy, (c) I lived in a second floor apartment and didn't want to drag an actual tree up a flight of stairs and impale myself with pine needles, and (d) I was trying to be friendly to good ol' mother earth. Are artificial Christmas trees more eco-friendly than real ones, though? That was my assumption, since you're not participating in the involuntary deaths of roughly 30 million trees in the U.S. alone each year (but who's counting?). Not so fast, though — there's much more to this discussion.

Why Artificial Trees Might Not Be The Answer

Buying an artificial tree can be a good move, if you plan on using it for the next decade, at least. If not, you're better off buying a natural tree. Here's why, according to PopSugar: for starters, fake trees take around eight times the energy to make.

Most of them are made overseas — somewhere around 85 percent — where coal energy is used, creating significant amounts of pollution (and then transported here by ship — hello more pollution!). They're typically made of PVC — a type of plastic made from petroleum. Older varieties of fake trees might even contain lead. They're not biodegradable, meaning when you toss it out, it will sit in a sad landfill somewhere for many decades (even centuries) to come.

One more scary fact? Fake trees are a fire hazard far more than natural ones. When the Farmington Hills, MI fire department compared which kind of tree was more dangerous in a fire, the artificial one lost out.

For these reasons, it takes years for the benefits of an artificial tree to offset the hefty carbon footprint it leaves (and the risk of it burning down your whole house). While some estimates put this at eight to nine years, one 2009 study from Montreal said it's looking more like 20 years minimum. This study ultimately found artificial trees have three times the impact on climate change and resource depletion, compared to real trees. Yikes!

It turns out, too, that I was a bit quick to judge what I deemed the murderous act of purchasing a real tree.

The Advantages Of A Natural Tree

Botanist and professor Clint Springer dropped some knowledge bombs, alerting me to the fact that Christmas trees are grown specifically to be Christmas trees. He told The New York Times, "A lot of people think artificial is better because you’re preserving the life of a tree. But in this case, you’ve got a crop that’s being raised for that purpose."

This advantage only barely scratches the surface. The biggest win natural trees have over artificial ones is that they're biodegradable, and you can even turn them into mulch. While I suspected that most trees weren't disposed of properly, it looks like I was wrong, wrong, wrong again. Approximately 93 percent of Christmas trees are recycled through over 4,000 programs each year — adorably referred to as "treecycling." Give yourselves a pat on the back, people. Treecycled trees can be used for landscaping, playground materials, hiking trails, erosion prevention, wildlife habitats, and even shoreline stabilization.

Better yet, just one acre of trees produces oxygen that can keep 18 people living for a full day; farms serve as a home for wildlife; one tree absorbs over a ton of CO2 in its lifespan; Christmas trees help stabilize soil, because they're able to grow where other crops cannot; and lastly, for every tree cut down, two or three seedlings are planted in its place. That means you end up with even more plant life.

This helps farmers continue to work sustainably and produce beautiful trees. Christmas trees can be bought in all 50 states, they create jobs for more than 100,000 people each year, and almost all of them are made right here in the U.S. of A. 'Merica.

I get the intention behind buying an artificial tree for environmental reasons. That was my biggest motivation. But, say it with me, folks: we were wrong. Now, don't race to ditch that fake tree you've got. Hang on to it, for Pete's sake. Hang on to it for dear life until you die. And when you die, make your children hang on to it. But in the future, if you'd like to have another tree in your home, shop local and go au naturel, and then give yourself a cookie for doing the environment a solid.