How Green is Your Christmas Tree? An Answer to the Real vs. Plastic Debate

  • Randy Soergel, owner of Soergel Orchards in Pittsburgh, with his selection of natural Christmas trees. Photo: Jenelle Pifer

  • A display of artificial trees in Pool City, just south of Soergel Orchards in Pittsburgh. Photo: Jenelle Pifer

Here's the question: Is it more environmentally friendly to have an artificial tree or to cut a real one down? The debate is rehashed year after year in the media, in the industry, and in who knows how many living rooms. This year we looked for some answers.

Charlene Lepant, who lives just north of Pittsburgh says every year she has both: an artificial tree and a real one. "It was kind of a compromise. I always had real trees and my husband always had artificial trees, so we compromised," she said.

Talking to Charlene, it doesn't take long to get a feel for the kind of back-and-forth logic that bouncing around in people's heads this time of year.

"Trees are providing us with oxygen, so the benefit is we keep a live tree in the system," she said. "But in the end, I think, 'Where does that artificial tree go?' Does it take up space in our landfill and fill up our landfill?"

One reason why this question can be so confusing is because the answer changes, depending who you ask. Rick Dungey is from the National Christmas Tree Association, the main trade group representing natural growers. He claims there is no debate. Dungey's emphatic when he says natural trees are hands down the best for the environment.

"Buying something that's natural and biodegradable is always a better option than buying, in this case, something that's 100% non-biodegradable, made out of 100% nonrenewable resources," he said.

But Brad McAllister, Director of WAP Sustainability Consulting, says that in terms of environmental impact, real and artificial trees are actually pretty similar.  "In general what the study found was that there wasn't a clear picture of one tree being better than the other," he explained.

The study he's talking about was done by a third party but was commissioned by the American Christmas Tree Association, a group representing artificial tree retailers. McAllister's firm is working to communicate the findings.

He says that if you consider production and transportation costs, artificial trees use more energy. "An artificial tree does have more of an energy demand to it, but if that artificial tree is used for more than one year, it helps pay itself off, in a sense. There's a payback period," he claimed.

McAllister's study shows that period to be 6 years. This means that one family using an artificial tree for 6 years is equal to another family using real trees for 6 years in a row. Another study conducted independently in Canada estimates the break-even point at 20 years, which is longer than most families would use an artificial tree.

Transportation costs alone are high either way. Though, it's suggested that more gas is used to move natural trees, because they're distributed on much smaller scales. But Dungey says trees are just crops and that this transportation cost is standard in the U.S. agriculture system.

"I guess I'm sort of confused by that whole argument. Our homes are built out of lumber. We wear cotton clothing. We eat all kinds of foods. All kinds of materials that we use every single day are products of agriculture," he said.

One of the strongest arguments against artificial trees is what goes into them. Artificial trees are often made using polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. PVC is a major source of pollutants called dioxins and is sometimes stabilized with lead. As the tree ages, these chemicals can break away and form harmful dust.

On the other side of the coin, Dungey says tree farmers don't heavily rely on chemicals, but worried customers should talk to their local growers.

Overall, many scientists and environmental groups agree that natural trees are better. It's true some new trees are now made with recycled plastic, but natural trees are a renewable resource and they decompose most naturally.

Plus, natural trees can have a number of secondary benefitsóthey clean the air, control water runoff and can be recycled as mulch. Here's our puzzled tree owner Charlene Lepant again.

"I put my real tree outside and I use it for shelter for birds. A lot of times I lean it up against my house and birds go in it in the winter," she said.

No matter what, if you have a tree, you're creating a carbon footprint. Though, the impact per tree, in the grand scheme of our average daily consumption, is relatively small. Environmentalists will point out that these small decisions do add up, but if you just turn off a few of those lights, you'll probably more than make up for whatever tree you buy.