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Proper Green: Plastic Pine or the Real Thing?

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It’s hard to know which is the greenest evergreen of them all.

Dear Proper Green,

I want to replace my old fake Christmas tree. Should I buy another fake one or go for a real one?

-Catherine P., Philadelphia, PA

Dear Catherine,

For many families, choosing a fresh Christmas tree from a farm or tree lot is a long-standing annual tradition. But in the past decade, more and more folks have begun opting for plastic pines over fresh trees.

In 2012, nearly 11 million fake trees were sold compared to 24.5 million fresh trees[1], but 83% of households put up a fake tree (likely one they purchased a previous year)[2]. What is the environmental impact of all that manufactured greenery? Should the eco-conscious among us be celebrating the rise of artificial trees? Not necessarily.

In some ways, it might seem like artificial trees would be better for the environment. Last year alone over 24 million real trees were felled, which calls to mind the destructive deforestation that happens in the U.S. and abroad. The loss of so many trees in one year sounds grave; however, evergreen trees are a renewable resource. Because Christmas trees are planted with the express purpose of being cut down every year, on net aggregate our environment isn’t losing as many trees as you would imagine. Instead, private land is put aside yearly to grow 300 million trees that during their life cycle give back to our environment through oxygen production, carbon dioxide “capture”, and flora and fauna maintenance[3].

The manufacture and transportation of artificial trees pose environmental concerns of their own. Currently, the vast majority of artificial trees are produced with plastics and metals that are, especially taken all together, are difficult or impossible to recycle[4]. Whenever a fake tree inevitably wears out, it often ends up in a landfill.

Conflicting studies declare both types of Christmas trees as the superior green evergreen. But what we know for sure is you can take steps to minimize the environmental impact once you’ve made your pick. Here are some smart actions to reduce impact:

Artificial Trees

  • - Try to purchase those made in the U.S. rather than ones exported from China. Buying locally reduces the gas and energy used to transport the trees.
  • - Unpack and store your tree with care to keep it looking nice, and use it for as many Christmases as you can.
  • - If you’re disposing of a plastic tree, consider upcycling it into other holiday decorations. Or donate it to a community center, school, or thrift store.

Fresh Trees

  • - Avoid driving long distances to get your tree. The pollution you produce on a fifty mile drive to get a real tree already makes it a far less environmentally friendly option.
  • - Recycle your tree. Many municipalities pick up trees from your curbside or manage drop-off locations. You can also mulch it or add it to your own backyard compost. Remember to remove all decorations before you recycle, compost, or mulch.

1 National Christmas Tree Association
2 American Christmas Tree Association
3 National Christmas Tree Association
4 New York Times

Do you have any other ideas for making your fake or real tree more green? Share them in the comments below!

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About the Author
Proper Green
Proper Green

Proper Green is Recyclebank's green advice column. From promoting good manners in a green world (because ideas about what constitutes proper behavior and... more

  • Toni W. 2 years ago
    My real tree has three lives: first, it is a beautiful Christmas tree, then it becomes a toy for our horses for about a month, finally it gets used as firepit fuel when we have our cook-out party in January. Decor-toy-fuel!
  • Ashley F. 2 years ago
    I bought a very nice artificial tree for $8 from a garage sale. I can't remember which store it came from, but I remember looking up the trees and the ones comparable were around $200+. It has been our only tree for five years now (I got it while I was pregnant with my older daughter) and it is still in excellent condition. My mom told me just this Christmas she still wants my tree. We kept it out of the landfill and saved a lot of money.
  • Emily W. 2 years ago
    Love our local wa farms!
  • Kasey T. 2 years ago
    Reuse. Reuse. Reuse. We bought a YRSNO tree from Ikea a few years ago. The minimalist design is cool and adaptable to all sorts of ornaments. It also packs flat. I believe this tree stand will last for years to come.
  • Judy B. 2 years ago
    Use a potted evergreen and plant it in the yard in the spring.
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