Real vs. Fake Christmas Trees: The Environmental Dilemma

Article by Ellie Chen. Illustration by Carolyn Duan

Lights glisten. Sparkling ornaments are spread on the tree, and gifts are below it. The star atop gleams. The fireplace is glowing with warmth and stockings hang above it. Christmas is here.

46% of Americans say that Christmas as their favorite holiday of the year, according to The Harris Poll. Many households across the country celebrate Christmas by putting up a Christmas tree, decorating it with ornaments, lights and a star on top. While real Christmas trees need to be cut down and harvested each year, fake Christmas trees give off pollutants. So which option is more eco-friendly? And what causes people to buy one or the other?

Fake Trees: Convenient but Polluting

More people tend to use fake Christmas trees because they are more convenient and reusable, which means that families spend less money on replacing a real one each year.

Freshman Iris Yuh has used the same fake Christmas tree since 3rd grade. To her, the advantage of convenience outweighs any disadvantages, and she has never considered using a real tree.

“Fake Christmas trees are easier to handle because you don’t have to lug it into the house and buy a new one each year,” Yuh said. “It also doesn’t attract bugs and the leaves won’t fall.”

Although fake trees are easier to use, studies show that they come with several negative health effects as well. ZME Science notes that PVC (polyvinyl chloride), the material most fake Christmas trees are made of, is non-renewable and polluting. Furthermore, they contain carcinogens, or substances that can cause cancer. The lead found in many fake Christmas trees can also have negative health effects on many parts of the body.

Besides the health concerns, transporting manufactured Christmas trees to different countries require a lot of energy. Studies show that on average, a fake Christmas tree must be used for 20 years in order for the energy used to be less than that of a real tree.

Real Trees: Troublesome Christmas Spirit

Meanwhile, most of the real trees used for Christmas come from Christmas tree farms. Bringing them back home is a challenge, and buying a new one each year is much more expensive than using a fake one for several years.

According to Rodale’s Organic Life, various pesticides are used on Christmas trees, many of which can be toxic to humans. For example, Dr. Leonard Hardell and Dr. Mikael Eriksson of Sweden recently discovered that Roundup, along with other pesticides used on Christmas trees, can cause damage to the human nervous system.Real Christmas trees can also bring dust into the house, trigger allergies and attract bugs if pesticides are not used.

Freshman Caitlin Wang uses a real tree to celebrate Christmas each year, and admits that it can be extremely tedious.

“It’s a pain trying to lug it into the house and pine needles drop everywhere,” Wang said. “And when Christmas is over, you have to chop it up and leave it outside in bags.”

Still, Wang believes there are many more benefits to using one. “One year we were almost going to switch to a fake Christmas tree because we had to buy a new one each year, but we didn’t because real trees have more holiday spirit,” Wang said. “Real trees also tend to look nicer. It feels more like Christmas. When you’re walking around the house, you can vaguely smell the pine and it feels more Christmas-y.”

Contrary to popular belief, cutting down real Christmas trees doesn’t actually contribute to deforestation. Real Christmas trees are grown on farms, and the land is used again and again each year. According to American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), there are also strict laws made by U.S. Forest Service, forbidding people to cut down trees from forest to use them as Christmas trees.

The Environmental Perspective: Bigger Picture

Fake trees are mostly made of PVC, which means that they are pollutants and are nonrenewable— after they are used, they cannot be replenished for a long time, according to ZME Science. Global warming is already a big issue, and although one fake Christmas tree won’t do much damage, too many fake Christmas trees will add up. Taking energy to transport these fake trees across large distances is also a bad way to waste energy.

On the other hand, real trees are cut down each year for Christmas. If you are using a real Christmas tree, you will need to buy a new one each year. Again, cutting real trees for one household does not waste a lot of energy, but it all adds up. Also, even though real trees can be recycled, many of them are not disposed of properly, which is not good for the environment.

So which one is best for your household to use in terms of eco-friendliness? If you are planning on using a Christmas tree for over 20 years, then buying a fake one would be more eco-friendly and convenient to use. However, most trees – even fake ones – cannot last that long. Households will also need to weigh the convenience of a fake Christmas tree against the holiday spirit of an authentic pine tree. Regardless of whether you use a real or fake tree, the important thing is to understand the pros and cons of each to reach an informed and favorable decision.