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The Green Life: A Real or Fake Christmas Tree: Which is Greener?

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December 07, 2012

A Real or Fake Christmas Tree: Which is Greener?

Mr. Green is Bob SchildgenHey Mr. Green,

Have you reached a conclusion on the real tree vs. artificial Christmas tree debate?

--Kathy in Winston Salem, North Carolina

I have indeed. The real tree is better for the environment than the fake tree. A real tree is a renewable resource, whereas a fake tree is usually made from plastic, which is derived from oil, a nonrenewable resource. The real tree can be recycled as mulch, compost, or wildlife shelter, whereas the fake tree can’t. The real tree does not contain harmful chemicals, whereas fake trees are often made with plastic polyvinyl chloride, whose manufacture releases highly toxic material. Plus, lead may have been added to stabilize the plastic. The real tree also absorbs carbon dioxide while it grows, doing its bit to fight global warming.

The belief that using real trees causes deforestation is mistaken. The fact is, real trees are farmed, often on marginal land that can't be used for other purposes. 

I see only two disadvantages to real trees: First, since they have to be shipped from a tree farm each year, real trees require a lot more shipping energy than the one-time shipment of a fake tree that will be used for an average of nine years before being dispatched to the landfill. Though about 85 percent of fake trees are made in China, and thus shipped farther than real trees, they require considerably less energy to ship.

The other problem with real trees is that many farmers use pesticides on them. It’s doubtful, though, that these cause more environmental problems than the petrochemical stew from which fake trees are confected. Both of these problems can be ameliorated by either buying a tree from a source as local as possible or by buying an organic tree. Find trees closest to home at www.christmastree.org.

There is a third option: a live tree, which you keep in a pot and bring forth with glad tidings to decorate each holiday season. This would seem to be the best choice of all. But don't get a live tree unless: a) you’re absolutely sure it’s a species well-adapted to your climate, and b) you are plant-savvy and dedicated enough to take proper care of it. In my long years of horticultural observation, I've encountered more dead live trees than living live trees.

A final point: I'm for buying the tree as late as possible. This is because, first of all, dealers tend to lower the prices to unload them late in the game, which has great appeal to people as cheap as me. Also, because the frenzied consumerist buildup to the holidays gives me the willies, early tree-purchasing seems more like a celebration of shopping than of anything cosmic or miraculous.

Got a question? Ask Mr. Green!


Ask Mr. Green: Local vs. Organic

Ask Mr. Green: Are Plastic Food Containers Too Toxic to Reuse?

Ask Mr. Green: Mercury in Flourescent Bulbs


This post is from Mr. Green's archives. Illustration by Little Friends of Printmaking.

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