Our Environment’s Voice in the Real Vs. Artificial Christmas Trees Debate

By Hannah Pugh

Pine needles and flannel-wearing lumberjacks surrounded us. It was late November. My mom and I scoured for tree trimmings at the Sorghum Mill Road tree farm. It was Black Friday and our family favorite farm was giving out free tree trimmings. Normally, we would purhcase a tree. This year, however, my mother explained to me that she was going to be purchasing a fake tree.

The fake or real Christmas tree debate has been going on for some time. Many defend the real tree as a more wholesome approach to the holidays, while others fight vigorously for the practicality of an artificial tree, as a means to spend less money. For many people, Christmas involves travel away from home. This year, my mother planned to take a trip near Christmas time and did not think she would be able to water a real tree. Putting my bias toward the real tree aside, I asked myself, which tree is a more environmentally-conscious choice?

A Look At Christmas Tree Farms

NYTimes reveals in “Real vs Artificial Christmas Trees: Which is the Greener Choice?” that it is a myth that cutting down real Christmas trees is a fundamentally less environmental friendly choice. In the case of tree farms, trees are grown to be cut, just like a farmer grows any other crop. To cut down a real tree is to support a local farm, in many cases. As soon a farmer cuts down a tree, another one is planted in its place. 

However, tree farms are in danger right now. Since the 2008 recession, farmers have planted fewer trees. Additionally, the effects of climate change have caused many trees to die prematurely. Considering that the average Christmas tree farm makes a mere $25,000 a year, it is important to think of the struggling farmers and how our choice affects them when we make our purchase. 

Like many purchasing decisions in our modern world, the Christmas tree debate is a war between local businesses and large corporations. These corporations often crank out unsustainable materials at lower prices. It is important that we bear in mind that the difference that a little more money can make a big difference for the vitality of our planet. 

Real trees are capable of being chopped up and composted if we get them in the right hands after we are done with them. 

How Artificial Christmas Trees are Manufactured

Let’s look at the argument that using a fake tree will have a better environmental impact. A study revealed that 81 percent of Americans use a fake tree. However, according to a study conducted by ACTA, a fake tree, which is used for five or more years, has less of an environmental impact than a new tree each year. This is due to a number of real trees being thrown away after only one holiday of use.

Let’s look at this study a little closer. The study sought to determine if artificial trees or real trees left a greater environmental footprint. The study examines the manufacturing process of fake trees. These trees are primarily composed of steel sheets, polyvinylchloride (PVC) and polypropylene (PP). The PVC film produced from PVC resin undergoes cutting and is combined with steel wire to form the tips of the branches. PP yarn produced from PP resin is then attached to the tip of the branches to complete branch assembly. 

Steel sheets undergo rolling and cutting processes and are then powder coated using epoxy resin to form the tree pole. The tree stand and tree top insert are made from injection molding PVC resin. Steel sheets are stamp pressed and powder coated using epoxy resin to form metal hinges. Steel sheets are stamp pressed to produce the metal fastener. The artificial Christmas tree is packaged in a corrugated cardboard box and sealed using plastic packaging tape. These materials cannot be recycled and will waste away in landfills.

Real trees, on the other hand, merely require planting seeds in the ground and waiting for trees to grow. Once chopped up, trees are completely compostable.

Counting the Costs of Transportation

Then, the transportation of the tree must be considered. For a fake tree, The distance for truck transport from storage to retailer has been approximated as 881 miles. The distance from retailer to end customer is assumed to be 5 miles. The transportation of artificial trees creates a large carbon emission that could be avoided if we chose to purchase from local businesses. In the case of Christmas trees, local businesses usually sell real trees, rather than artificial ones. 

The study concluded that to keep a fake tree for a number of years is a better environmental choice than to buy a real tree each year and neglect to recycle it.

What We Can Do

As a result, we can conclude that the ideal choice is to support a local farm with our Christmas tree selection and recycle it afterward. If you know that the financial strain of buying a real tree each year will be too much for you, consider this alternative company. Balsam Hill uses recycled plastics in some of their trees and they are made to last for thirty years or more. And if you do find your artificial tree breaking down, don’t throw it away, donate it to a donation center, and your trash might just be someone else’s treasure. And once you are no longer in need of your real tree, it is absolutely crucial that you recycle it. There are a number of ways to do this. Read this article to learn how. 

Image by shutter stock