What's the Most Eco-Friendly Christmas Tree? (Real vs Artificial)

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year! And for many people, the festive season also means thousands of Christmas trees appearing in stores, homes and businesses around the country.

You've probably already bought your eco-friendly gifts, and lovingly wrapped them in sustainable wrapping paper.

Now all you need is a tree of your own to put them under.

But what is a more eco-friendly Christmas tree? Should we buy an artificial tree or a real one? Or are there any sustainable alternatives to consider?

Let’s take a look at how you can have your tree and help save the Earth too.

The Facts

Before we get into discussing which type of Christmas tree is best, let's take a look at a few key facts:

  • There are between 25 and 30 million real Christmas trees, and between 12 and 20 million fake Christmas trees, sold in the US every year.
  • Around 80% of Fake Christmas trees are made in China.
  • Around 350 million real trees are growing in Christmas tree farms in the USA at any one time.
  • On average a real Christmas tree takes 7 years to grow.
  • Every time a real tree is cut down, between 1 and 3 new trees are planted next spring.

Source: National Christmas Tree Association

Real vs Artificial Trees: Which is Best?

People often ask which is more eco friendly, an artificial Christmas tree or a real one.

Many people believe that buying a fake Christmas tree is better for the environment, as cutting down a real tree in most circumstances is generally frowned upon.

But the truth is, both trees have their pros and cons, and there are different factors to consider.

We need to look at the pros and cons of both real and fake trees, and also examine what other alternatives there are, in order to decide what is truly the most eco friendly Christmas tree.

Real Christmas Trees

Real Christmas trees

A Christmas tree farm is a family-owned or commercial tree farm that harvests trees for sale.

Before harvesting, the trees are grown on the field for an average of seven years.

During the growing cycle, the living Christmas tree will absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help combat climate change, just like any other tree. It will also provide a home for local wildlife.

When a living tree reaches its full height, it will be harvested for sale. The farm will then plant more trees to replace every one that is used.

If you have a farm in your area, it means you can go along and pick up natural Christmas trees yourself (make sure you ask for one without the plastic wrap). If you don't, then getting one delivered will create a carbon footprint, depending on how far it has to travel.

Real Christmas trees are a single use item, but they don't need to go to waste. After Christmas, you can take your tree to a local recycling centre where it can be turned into mulch, or you can cut it up and compost it yourself.

Pros & Cons

Grown on managed, sustainable Christmas tree farms
Locally grown, reduced carbon footprint
Absorbs carbon dioxide while it grows
Fully compostable and biodegradable
Can be turned into mulch
Single use
Encourages people to cut trees down
Sheds pine needles in your home
May not be a farm near you

Artificial Christmas Trees

artificial christmas tree

An artificial tree can be re-used, and with care they can last for many years. You might only need one in your entire lifetime, and you can also give it away to someone else when you don't need it any more.

On the face of it, this sounds like an eco Christmas tree right? That's until you find out where it came from and what it's made of.

Artificial trees are made from metal and PVC plastics, or other synthetic materials. PVC is known to be a carcinogen (a substance capable of causing cancer) and has other known health hazards as well.

What's more, if you buy an artificial Christmas tree, it's probably been made in China (over 80% of them are). That means you need to factor in the environmental impact of the manufacturing process, plus the carbon emissions involved in shipping the product.

When your fake tree reaches end of life, it won't be biodegradable and usually can't be recycled either. So inevitably, most fake Christmas trees will end up in landfill at some point.

Pros & Cons

Can be reused multiple times
Does not involve cutting down an actual tree
Easier to transport
Made from potentially hazardous PVC plastic
May contain lead
Not recyclable or biodegradable
Made in China
Imported, creating significant carbon footprint

Sustainable Alternatives to a Real Christmas Tree

So if you're not comfortable with single use real tree, and are put off by the environmental impacts of an artificial one, what are the alternatives? Is it even possible to get sustainable Christmas trees?

Potted Christmas Trees

potted christmas tree

A potted tree is, as the name would suggest, a real living tree that grows in a pot in your back yard. You simply bring it inside at Christmas, decorate it, and enjoy the festive season as normal.

You then take it back outside in the New Year and keep it there until next Christmas. In this way you can use the same tree year after year.

The downside is that you obviously need the outside space to keep your potted tree. We don't all have a garden, so this isn't going to work for everyone. You also need to remember to care for it all year round.

But even that isn't a show stopper - it is also possible to rent a potted tree over Christmas. Companies such as rentxmastree will deliver a real, potted Christmas tree to your home, and collect it again when you've finished!

This is the best (and probably the only) way to have a truly eco-friendly Christmas tree.

Sustainable Wooden Christmas Trees

wooden Christmas tree

How about a sustainable Christmas tree that is made of wood, can be re-used every year, and that doubles up as a craft project that you (or the kids) can paint and decorate yourself.

These wooden Christmas tree ornaments are just about the closest thing to an eco-friendly fake Christmas tree that I could find.

They're only 15 inches high, so they're not going to give you the same effect as a real tree in your living room. But if you're willing to compromise on size, you can still have a lot of fun with these.

Decorate Living Trees Outside

palm tree in christmas decorations

Instead of having a Christmas tree inside your house, consider decorating a tree outside.

This is a particularly good idea if you live in the Southern states and don't expect to see snow at Christmas. If you do, chances are you won't live near a tree farm either. So get creative.

You don't need to hang your decorations, lights and tinsel on a pine or fir tree. Even Palm trees can be made to look festive! So look out the window and work with what you have.

Tips on Buying From a Sustainable Christmas Tree Farm

If you live in an area where there's a tree farm, it is best to buy your tree from them because the trees have been grown with care and in a sustainable way.

Check for Forest Stewardship Council certification for extra peace of mind.

Remember, say no if you are offered a plastic sleeve to carry your tree home. You don't want to contribute towards plastic pollution. If you're putting the tree on the back seat of your car, just put a rug underneath it instead to catch the needles.

Never go into the wild and cut down a live tree yourself. You might think you're saving money, but this is not the way to have an eco-friendly Christmas.

Wild trees are not farmed and nobody is planting replacements. It's hypocrisy to complain about deforestation in the rainforest and then go and do the same thing ourselves just so we can hang up some decorations.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which Type of Christmas Tree is Most Environmentally Friendly?

It depends on the type of Christmas tree and how it will be used.

Seasonal, live Christmas trees are usually considered to be more environmentally friendly because, even though they are single use, they are farmed sustainably and can be recycled for mulch or compost.

Artificial Christmas trees cannot be recycled at the end of their life, and since they are often made from harmful plastics, they will not decompose over time. They can be reused many times, but many artificial trees are made in a non eco-friendly way, and shipping adds a carbon footprint.

If possible, a potted tree or a wooden fake tree is probably the most eco-friendly Christmas tree you can get.

How do I Recycle a Real Christmas Tree?

You must remove all tinsel, ornaments, garlands and any other decorations before you begin recycling your tree.

Cut the tree down to manageable pieces so it will fit in your trash can. Keep cut branches fresh by leaving them inside a bucket of water (like a stand). You can also place newspapers in the bottom of the can, around the cut branches.

Tie your tree in a knot to make it easier for removal.

When you are truly finished with your Christmas tree recycle, place it out at curbside or on the alley with regular household recycling.

When you place your Christmas tree recycle out for collection, keep in mind that it will usually be recycled into mulch and can then be used to retain soli moisture, reduce weeds and improve fertility. So if you have a garden, you might want to recycle your own tree and use the mulch yourself!

What can I use instead of a Christmas tree?

Try making your own DIY Christmas tree by collecting up fallen twigs and branches. These can be tied together with string to create a vertical hanger, almost like a venetian blind, which is perfect to hang your decorations from.

DIY Christmas tree

Alternatively, you can do away with the tree entirely and string lights on your house exterior. Skip the lights and use solar-powered pathway lighting instead. Or, for a greener Christmas, string together twinkling LED and halogen lights.

Use rechargeable or solar-powered decorations to keep your tree green during the holidays. If you're not sure where you want to go with your holiday decorating this year, try going with organic decorations.

Can I Rent a Christmas Tree?

Yes, you can rent a tree instead of buying one. Some companies offer trees that are delivered to your door or picked up at several drop off points around town. Renting is usually more convenient than keeping potted trees because you don't need to take care of them year round.

Of course, renting comes at a price and it may not be available in every location, but it's still a good option to consider.

The Final Word

You might have been surprised to learn that an artificial tree is not the eco-friendly option that most people think, and that real trees are not as harmful as people think either. I certainly was when I first found out about this.

But now that we know which Christmas trees are truly eco-friendly (and which are not) we can make informed decisions.

If you already own an old artificial tree, then there is certainly no need to throw it away or stop using it. Just the opposite - you want to get as much use out of it as possible and avoid it going into landfill.

However, if you don't have a tree, then it would be better if we stopped buying new artificial trees and either used a real tree, or an alternative sustainable option such as those I mentioned earlier.

The good news is that it is possible to have a very Merry Christmas without damaging the planet.

If Santa can manage to circumnavigate the globe without burning any fossil fuels, I think that using an eco-friendly Christmas tree is the least we can do!

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With her Master of Science in Renewable Energy Engineering (MSREE) from Oregon Tech, Steph is supremely well qualified to write on all aspects of renewable energy. She has already achieved a zero carbon footprint and her goal is to help as many other people as possible do the same. Her other hobbies include music, yoga, swimming and horror movies.
Stephanie Cole
With her Master of Science in Renewable Energy Engineering (MSREE) from Oregon Tech, Steph is supremely well qualified to write on all aspects of renewable energy. She has already achieved a zero carbon footprint and her goal is to help as many other people as possible do the same. Her other hobbies include music, yoga, swimming and horror movies.

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