Real, or artificial? The great Christmas tree debate, each side with pros and cons. I have never been able to pick a side in this annual conundrum. That is until I found a great zero-waste solution.
I grew up with an artificial tree, and that is what we have now. We bought it after buying our home but before starting our plastic-free journey, and before I knew about the potential toxins in artificial Christmas trees. Also, I personally always believed that a fake tree was better since it is reusable. I thought that cutting down a tree was killing it. And I thought that killing a tree just to have it in my home for one holiday seemed selfish and antinature.
Most artificial Christmas trees are made of metals and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, which can be a potential source of hazardous lead. “The potential for lead poisoning is great enough that fake trees made in China are required by California Prop 65 to have a warning label,” according to the National Christmas Tree Association.1 Prop 65, or Proposition 65, provides warnings about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.
PVC also releases gases known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates that can irritate the eyes, nose, and lungs. I’ve seen recommendations to shop for a PVC-free tree made from polyethylene which is considered safer and not known to leach harmful chemicals. But this is not easy to find. I did discover that IKEA’s Christmas trees are PVC and BPA free. Even if you find one, it’s still a plastic tree.
From what I’ve read, it seems that most off-gassing may occur when the tree is new, so unpack it and leave it outside to off-gas for a while before bringing it into your home. According to the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), if you purchase an artificial tree, use it for at least six to nine years before replacing it.2
Among the arguments I’ve heard for real trees, one of the most common is the smell. Those of us with an artificial tree are relegated to scented pine candles, air fresheners, or scented ornament sticks. However, all of those items that are artificially scented likely contain phthalates and other chemicals that are not safe to breathe. Don’t feel bad for not knowing that, I used to use them too! But please safely dispose of them now. Look for a soy or beeswax candle as they are usually much safer. If you have an artificial tree and really want to have that smell in your home, perhaps you can find a few sprigs of pine to put in a vase.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), approximately 25-30 million trees sold in the U.S. every year. There are close to 350 million trees growing on Christmas Tree farms just in the U.S.3 Tree farms emit oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, and filter toxins from our air. The NCTA indicates that for every real Christmas tree harvested, 1 to 3 seedlings are planted the following spring. “Christmas tree farms stabilize the soil, protect water supplies and support complex eco-systems.”4
Many Christmas tree farms across the world may be monoculture farms, meaning they only grow a single crop which does not encourage biodiversity and sometimes requires extra pesticides to protect the plants. However, “very few Christmas trees are removed from federal forests, and those that are, are strictly regulated by the U.S. Forest Service.”5
The Great Debate
According to a significant study conducted in 2010, the environmental friendliness of a real or artificial Christmas tree depends upon how a family uses it. “The study found that the environmental impacts of one artificial tree used for more than eight Christmases is environmentally friendlier than purchasing eight or more real cut trees over eight years.”6 ACTA encourages consumers to consider buying a locally grown tree if possible to reduce emissions from traveling to buy it.
Disposal of Either Type
Real Christmas trees biodegrade or can be recycled. “Real trees are more sustainable because they are biodegradable, unlike plastic trees which fill landfills and cause more harm than good to the environment.”7 The Arbor Day Foundation also offered multiple ways to recycle a real Christmas tree. “There are more than 4,000 local Christmas Tree recycling programs throughout the United States,” according to the NCTA.8
If you plan to replace an artificial tree, donate it before you dispose of it in a landfill. You can donate it to a thrift store, a neighbor, a church, maybe a homeless shelter. Check with local non-profits as even your local zoo or school may want one. You could also put it online for free through Freecycle, Nextdoor, or Facebook.
The Best Solution: Zero Waste
This year I discovered Christmas Tree rental! This may be the best of both worlds and is a zero-waste option. Tree rental companies deliver the tree to your home or office in a pot and you can decorate it. When the holiday season is over, the rental company will pick it up. This means you can have a real tree annually without cutting one down, and there’s no storage of a plastic tree year-to-year. While this is not a new solution, it is one that is growing.
One Christmas Tree nursery in California notes that their renting program “focuses on zero waste and employs a minimal footprint operation through efficiency and conservation.”9 You’ll also get that smell of fresh pine, the tree will be replanted, the trees provide habitats for wildlife in between the holiday seasons, and they remove carbon dioxide and toxins both from your home and the atmosphere.
This option isn’t available everywhere yet, but be sure to check your state or region. The pricing that I found with various companies ranged from $35-$75, and I saw some as high as $155. But the cost of cutting down a tree is about the same – so why kill a tree?
Let me know if you’ve tried Christmas tree rental and how your experience went. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe. I wish you and your family a very Happy Holidays!
Article, “Tiny House Family’s Christmas Tree Solution,” Tiny House Talk, December 23, 2018.
Article, “8 Sustainable Ways to Recycle your Christmas Tree,” Arbor Day Foundation, December 26, 2019.
Guide, “How to recycle: Real Christmas Trees have a second life,” National Christmas Tree Association, accessed December 21, 2020.