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Real Versus Fake: Which Christmas Tree is Healthier?

December 22, 2013
Nicole McDermott

There’s no doubt about it: Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a decorated tree standing tall in the home (and over presents). In fact, Americans buy huge numbers of the holiday evergreens each year — some of ‘em fake and some of ‘em the real live deal. But it turns out the choice of real versus fake might involve more thought than whether or not we feel like vacuuming up loose needles. Real and not-so-real trees have different health implications for people and the planet — so which is better? 

 Which Tree is the Greenest? — The Need-to-Know

Christmas trees are a billion-dollar market, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (yup, a real thing). In 2011, a poll found that people in the U.S. purchased more than 30 million real trees and 9.5 million fake ones. Short of not buying a tree at all (unlikely), evidence is mounting that the best way to minimize environmental impact (and potential health risks) is to purchase a real live tree.

It’s easy to assume fake trees are the more eco-friendly choice, because (let’s face it) cutting down a live tree hardly seems like an act of environmental preservation. But according to the NCTA, artificial trees are made up of plastics that don’t biodegrade (meaning any fake tree that ends up in a landfill will stay there for, well, ever.) In addition, the process of making fake trees is pretty energy-intensive, meaning that a fake tree would have to be used for two decades before it could match the carbon footprint of a farmed tree (that’s the amount of carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels). Though one study did find that artificial trees are a better choice environmentally (on the grounds that they have a smaller transportation footprint than real trees because real-tree purchasers have to drive to pick one up each year), the conclusions have been accused of being misleading.

Not only are fake trees fairly damaging to the environment, but they might also pose a risk to human health. Fake trees may contain metal toxins like lead, the exposure to which may cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and other organs, even in small doses. In short, fake trees generally aren’t a great choice for planetary and human health.

In contrast, spending a little cash-money on a real tree can be good for human health, local communities, and the planet. Real trees contribute to local state economies (Christmas tree farms are in business in all 50 states), and choosing a locally grown tree can actually conserve energy (no transporting a tree over state lines or overseas). Another bonus: Real trees are biodegradable, which means they can be recycled or composted and used to fertilize new generations of trees.

Real trees can also benefit human health. Trees help clean the air while they’re grown (remember all that photosynthesis stuff we learned in grade school?). And one acre of the Christmas staple can produce the daily oxygen requirements for 18 people. Exposure to real greenery can also be pretty therapeutic, as it’s been linked to reduced stress and improvements in overall wellbeing. And if all this isn’t enough reason to buy the authentic version, consider this: Real trees smell waaay better.

Real-tree buyers can choose to get extra green by going organic. Farmers who grow organic trees avoid using harmful pesticides and use practices that don’t deplete the soil, so trees can be grown for years to come. Organic options are slim, but check out this list to see if there’s an eco-minded tree farm near you. And for the truly dedicated earth-friendly Christmas tree shopper, there’s another option on the rise: These days, all the cool kids are renting trees. After a stint shading presents and displaying lovely ornaments, rented trees are picked up and replanted so they can live out long, flourishing lives.

Caring for a Real Tree — Your Action Plan 

So you’ve decided to buy a real tree. Now, follow these tips to maximize its longevity.

  • If the tree was freshly cut, place it in water as soon as possible, even if it won’t be decorated right away. If it’s been over six hours since the tree’s been cut and it hasn’t gotten any water to wet its whistle, make a fresh cut at the base before setting it up in a tree stand.
  • To maintain a tree’s freshness (and avoid so many dried up needles on the living room floor), pour water into the base daily. Fill it up enough that the water level stays above the bottom of the trunk of the tree. Trees are thirsty suckers — they can slurp up a quart of water per inch of the tree’s base diameter every day. If the base dries up, sap can run out and seal it off, making it harder for water to get in.
  • Fresh, clean water does the trick. No need for any fancy nutrient packets.
  • Keep the tree away from heat sources. A fireplace or radiator can speed up evaporation and moisture loss, not to mention increase the risk of fire.
  • Don’t toss a tree to the curb once it’s past its prime. Many counties have free drop-off recycling centers or tree mulching programs. Find a recycling program at earth911 or start a recycling (or rather, treecycling!) program in your area by contacting the National Christmas Tree Association.

The Takeaway 

Christmas trees are one of America’s most traditional purchases come December. Both for your family’s health and for good ole Mama Earth, feel better about buying the real thing. 

Whats your tree tradition?