Real Vs Artificial Christmas Tree: What the science says

The debate over Christmas trees takes place year after year. We really shouldn’t use real trees and I’m glad that more and more people have stopped using natural trees for Christmas, but are artificial alternatives really better? Here, we’ll be discussing the pros and cons of using artificial trees versus real trees so that you can make the best decision based on scientific facts.

Artificial Christmas Trees

Artificial Christmas trees have come a long way… sometimes you can’t even tell the difference without a closer look. Image via Christmas Wallpapers.

Artificial Christmas Trees are artificial trees manufactured specifically for the purpose of being used as a Christmas tree. Here, I’ll be focusing only on the most common ones (the ones made from PVC), but you should know that there are also other, more creative alternatives. Most people would be surprised to find out that in many ways, artificial trees actually do more harm to the environment than cutting natural trees; in other words, the idea of artificial trees being eco-friendly is, as a researcher at Kansas State University put it – “an urban myth”.

A peer-reviewed study released in 2011 found that the impacts of natural and artificial trees are almost the same, with the artificial ones being slightly worse. The key here is PVC. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a petroleum-derived plastic. The main raw material for fake Christmas trees is both non-renewable and polluting, and you can’t recycle it. Furthermore, PVC production results in the unhealthy emission of a number of carcinogens, such as dioxin, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride. Also, lead is frequently used to create the actual needles, and as we all know, lead has a number of significant negative health effects, including kidney, neurological, and reproductive system damage. Therefore, touching the tree, especially with your face, can be quite hazardous. Also, vacuuming around the tree can spread tiny lead particles in the air, which creates an inhalation danger.

It also requires a lot of energy to create and transport the fake trees. You need to reuse the tree for 20 years before the total energy used for the artificial tree is less than the energy cost of using a new, live tree each year. There is also the question of transportation, though recent studies have shown that that’s not that much of a problem.

“The reality is that the long distance transport from China is pretty efficient,” says Laura Morrison, a Senior Consultant at PE International.

Christmas Trees

Image via Christmas Wallpapers.

“Real” Christmas Trees are almost always evergreen conifers, such as spruce, pine, or fir. The custom of the Christmas trees developed in early modern Germany with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly even the 15th century. The history of this tradition has actually nothing to do with Christianity — Vikings and other northern populations would deocrate their windows and homes with evergreens to keep witches and other spirits away. However, many Christians embraced it. Each year, 33 to 36 million Christmas trees are produced in America, and 50 to 60 million are produced in Europe. Naturally, cutting down this many trees is a big problem, both ethically and environmentally — but is it worse than polluting?

Natural tree growers contend that artificial trees are more environmentally harmful than their natural counterparts, but trade groups such as the American Christmas Tree Association claim the exact opposite — so you can’t really rely on either of their claims considering their obvious bias. So what does the science say?

Live trees are typically grown as a crop and replanted in rotation after cutting, often providing suitable habitats for wildlife. While poor management can lead to poor habitat and soil degradation, Christmas tree plantations are generally decent habitats. Another drawback to live trees is that you only use them for a short while before throwing them away. Sadly, even though they are biodegradable and highly recyclable, Christmas trees are sometimes simply thrown away. However, more and more are being recycled to be used as mulch or to prevent erosion. Real trees are also carbon-neutral, though emissions can occur from farming activities and transportation. They are also more expensive than artificial trees since you need to purchase a new one every year.

The Conclusion

Both natural and artificial Christmas trees have a negative environmental impact. If you truly want a green Christmas, don’t get a tree at all! But if you really want one, read the conclusion below. Image via PetMD.

It’s not possible to say that real or artificial Christmas trees are better. If you really want to have a green Christmas and lower your negative environmental impact, don’t buy any tree. Decorate your house, maybe get some fallen branches, whatever… just don’t get a tree. If you do want to keep the tradition and get a tree, then this is the main takeaway:

Both natural and fake trees have an environmental impact. Most people don’t know, but artificial trees have a slightly larger negative impact, requiring more energy to produce, lead to pollution, and pose potential health hazards. Cutting down natural trees, even if they are recycled afterward and have a smaller carbon footprint, is unethical, and you would have a much larger environmental bonus if you simply let them grow. You would get a better habitat, more carbon sequestration, better landscapes and so on. This is what science says… the decision is yours. Choose responsibly!

33 thoughts on “Real Vs Artificial Christmas Tree: What the science says

  1. Kevin

    We purchase our tree from the local national forest. As part of a management scheme for a section of overcrowded forest, anyone can get a permit to cut up to five trees. Trees must be 6 inches in diameter or less.

    The forest health is improving and there is less competition between trees and trees are growing taller, providing different habitats, etc.

    How does this compare to farm-raised tree cutting?

  2. George Butel

    Does the greater detrimental environmental impact take into account the pollution created by houses burning down from fires involving real Christmas trees? I don’t know for sure, but it seems logical that “real” trees would be more of a fire hazard.

  3. Pingback: 108 Christmas Trees: Real vs. Artificial | The Christmas Stocking

  4. Pingback: Want a more eco-friendly Christmas Tree this year? | howtolivesustainably

  5. Pingback: Seasonal Sustainability |

  6. Catjaws

    Maybe that was true years ago,but modern LED lighting can’t ignite even dry branches of a real tree. I don’t put up a tree at all,just a plastic wreath in the front window.

  7. George Butel

    I don’t either. I have no miniature humans around to have to please. However, you overlook one of the main aspects of Christmas: “tradition.” People use ornaments from decades ago, in the name of “tradition,” as well as to save money. And the facts about fires speak otherwise: “Between 2009-2013, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 210 home fires that started with Christmas trees per year. U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 860 home structure fires per year that began with decorations, excluding Christmas trees.”

  8. Catjaws

    I should have added that my wreath is > 45 years old,and I don’t have any miniature humans to please either.I have been debating whether to buy one of the new wreaths with multi-colored LED lights built in. My wreath uses a dozen red incandescent bulbs,turned on/off with a timer. I am home by the time the wreath turns on,and have a monitored smoke alarm system.

  9. Glenn

    The analysis is a bit flawed. Sure, leaving a tree to grow is going to create more carbon sequestration, but who is going to buy land, plant trees and never make a dime off it? It is simply impractical. Something is going to be grown on that land, and Christmas trees are a far better carbon sequester and wildlife habitat than most any other agricultural crop. I believe this article undercuts the case of sustainability too. A “natural” tree can mulched as mentioned, but an artificial one goes to the landfill. There’s a lot bigger case for a natural tree over an artificial one, but both have their places just as some people want neither. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but an artificial tree is the lessor of the three choices.

  10. Pingback: Φυσικό ή τεχνητό χριστουγεννιάτικο δέντρο; | Ελληνική Γεωργία

  11. Pingback: Vánoce Vánoce přícházejí…. | Méně je více

  12. Pingback: Nature's Packaging Christmas Tree Farms - Nature's Packaging

  13. Pingback: Petroleum Product of the Week: Artificial Christmas Trees

  14. Pingback: Student’s Corner |

  15. Pingback: M4C Stories: #SustainableSpirit with Patrick Isaac - MilkCrate

  16. Pingback: There’s a Reason the Grinch Is Green - American Forests

  17. Pingback: There’s a Reason the Grinch Is Green – Climate, Forests & Woodlands

  18. Pingback: Have Yourself a Very Minimalist Christmas in 2017! - Good On You

  19. Pingback: Have Yourself a Very Minimalist Christmas in 2017! – The Ethical Feed

  20. Pingback: Oh Tannenbaum: A Forestry Friday for Christmas Trees - Sealevel

  21. Pingback: Research on Christmas Trees – Chloe Lomax

  22. Pingback: O Überschüssiger Tannenbaum! – Climate Law

  23. Pingback: Ho Ho So Sustainable Christmas! - What's news today?

  24. Pingback: Ho Ho So Sustainable Christmas! – Organic foods for heath

  25. Pingback: Zero Waste Christmas Guide | The Mindful Mom Blographer

  26. Pingback: Avoid Christmas Hardship in 2018 - NewsBlaze News

  27. Pingback: The REAL FAKE Truth: Natural versus Artificial Trees - Loraas

  28. Pingback: The great tree debate - Journalism London

  29. Pingback: Christmas trees – Real vs Fake – Econaki

  30. Pingback: Simple Steps for a Minimalist Christmas and Holiday Season – leceurdublogmode

  31. Pingback: Simple Steps for a Minimalist Christmas and Holiday Season - Live The Good Life

  32. Pingback: Christmas Trees - Real vs Fake | Rural Writings

  33. Pingback: 7 τρόποι για να εξοικονομήσετε χρήματα όταν στολίζετε τα Χριστούγεννα - siyde

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *