By Bethany Clark
Trees Atlanta

More people than ever are concerned about how things affect the environment. As the holiday season approaches, one of the environmental questions on many people’s minds is whether buying and decorating a real tree during Christmas does harm to our forests. Trees Atlanta would like to offer you some information on this matter, so that you can decide whether to celebrate with a real tree or an artificial one.

You may be surprised to hear this, but Trees Atlanta supports using real Christmas trees instead of artificial ones. Once your shock and awe is over, read on to learn why.

The main benefit to an artificial tree is that, in best case scenarios, you buy it once and reuse it annually. This one attribute makes people think it is a better choice to make than buying a real tree; after all, no real trees have been harmed in your holiday celebration. But there are other factors to consider, the main being that real Christmas trees are a renewable resource. Artificial trees are simply not.

The majority of real Christmas trees sold today are specifically planted and grown for the Christmas holidays on farms. They are meant to be harvested in the same way that crops like potatoes, pumpkins, and squash are cultivated and harvested. After the season, 2-3 seedlings are planted to replace each harvested tree. Each acre on these farms can hold more than 1,000 trees, and there are more than 500,000 acres in production across North America, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Farms that grow real Christmas trees provide wildlife habitat, control soil erosion, are beautiful to look at, and produce a crop when the soil might not be ideal for other crops. And after the holidays, many communities collect the used Christmas trees and recycle them.

Here are some fun facts about Christmas trees, courtesy of the National Christmas Tree Association:

  • There are approximately 30-35 million real Christmas trees sold in North America every year. Christmas tree farmers plant more than 60 million new seedlings post-harvest.
  • It can take up to 15 years to grow a tree of average retail sale height (6 feet), but the average growing time is seven years.
  • Real Christmas trees are a renewable, recyclable resource.
  • Artificial trees contain non-biodegradable plastics. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, 80 percent of artificial trees are manufactured in and shipped from China.
  • North American Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states and Canada. The top Christmas tree production states are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Washington.
  • The top selling Christmas trees are balsam fir, Douglas-fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine, and white pine.
  • There are more than 4,000 local Christmas tree recycling programs throughout the United States. Many communities have a “curbside pickup” for Christmas trees after the holiday, which brings the trees to a recycling program, not a landfill.

The above reasons weigh into Trees Atlanta’s support of using real Christmas trees during the holiday season. Once the season is over, choosing to “treecycle” your tree provides material for industries that can give the tree a second life. There are several types of large-scale uses to which old Christmas trees can contribute, among them are wood chipping, erosion prevention and land stabilization, fish habitat, and river delta sedimentation management.

As you see, these uses range from highly-useful environmental factors (like erosion prevention) to things that we humans enjoy (like hiking trails). Artificial trees, unfortunately, cannot help with any of this.

Still wavering? Ok, here’s a happy medium: if you wish to celebrate Christmas with a tree, get a real Christmas tree, and then come plant with Trees Atlanta.You can join one of our volunteer projects and help us plant 50 trees at once, thereby offsetting any Christmas tree guilt. (The exercise will also work off any holiday calories, too!)

You can also choose to participate in Trees Atlanta’s “Living Christmas Tree” program. We sell living trees, still in a pot (and yes, you will have to water them), that can be brought into your home, decorated, and then planted afterward in your yard. You can also elect to return the tree to Trees Atlanta after the holidays are over and we will plant it elsewhere in the city. Enjoy your options, and have happy, safe holidays!

8 replies on “Real or Fake: Weighing Christmas Tree Options”

  1. Your readers may be interested in a study released today:
    The first ISO-compliant third-party peer reviewed Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) comparing the most common artificial Christmas tree sold in the United States to the most common real Christmas tree sold in the United States, found that the choice of either tree has a negligible impact on the environment. However, the study’s findings show that length of ownership, disposal method and “tree miles” can make a difference on which tree is environmentally preferable. For more information visit http://www.christmastreeassociation.org.

  2. Thank you Bethany! As a long time volunteer with Trees Atlanta, I have often been so ashamed of myself for buying (and wasting) a Christmas tree, but it just isn’t Christmas to me without the tree. You have saved Christmas!

  3. I checked the link the other commenter provided and have to disagree~clearly the publisher of the information provided has something to gain by saying that both fake and real Christmas trees are “green”. They’re really not. Plastic is made from oil, a fossil-fuel, and most of those trees are shipped from far far away, requiring even more fossil fuel to be used.

    Anyhoo…we purchased a Norfolk Island Pine, planted it in a lovely ceramic pot that was locally made, and it has grown into a beautiful, sustainable tree option for us. At the holidays, it graciously accepts our adornments and looks quite fabulous. The rest of the year, it keeps the indoor-air quality clean and generally adds to our green space. It lives outside all summer long, where it has grown to a nice 6′ height in less than two years. The pot we’ve planted it in will keep it short, so we won’t have to worry about it bursting through the ceiling, but it’s filling out nicely. This will be our tree for many many years, the ultimate renewable 🙂

  4. how silly …that ‘study’ paid for by a fake tree company doesn’t take into account the vast majority of factors needed for a life cycle analysis. How much energy is consumed by the factory in China to produce fake trees? How much energy is consumed to produce the raw materials such as sheets of PVC plastic and metal wires? Those have to be produced and sent to the factory that assembles fake trees ..oh, and you can read about those here http://www.christmastree.org/washingtonpost.pdf How much energy is consumed extracting those non-renewable resources that make up the raw materials – the petroleum and metals?

    Also, that’s great if you keep a fake tree for 20 years, but then what? Where will it be 50 years from now? 100 years from now? 1,000 years from now? Answer: in our landfills. They NEVER decompose, they will be a burden to the environment forever. A real tree is a plant, and like all plants they decompose and return their nutrients back to earth.

    The “debate” is over. Why do the fake tree people keeping grasping at straws?

  5. This is a lively discussion. We’re very glad that you found our point of view helpful for your holiday season. @Kathlin, thanks for your continued support. @Fiona, sounds like you’ve found a very green happy medium. @Christmas Tree Guy, thanks for your observations about what goes into producing artificial trees, and we will definitely encourage our audience to chip up their trees with Keep Atlanta Beautiful, thanks for that tip! Have a very happy holiday season, all!

  6. The Sierra Club has suggested that it may not be a good idea to replant Christmas trees because some of them are vectors for a very serious water mold: http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/201111/grapple.aspx
    I’m not sure how reliable this information is, but I tend to trust the Sierra Club!

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