Real or Fake? What To Know Before Buying A Christmas Tree

by heather

My grandmother and I in front of her real Christmas tree last year...

My grandmother and I in front of her real Christmas tree last year...

Yep, I rarely put pictures of myself on the blog, but there it is: me and my sweet grandmother in front of her “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree” last year.

It was one of those scrawny trees that are full of holes and personality. And, it was one of the last ones on the lot. She, of course, fell in love with it. In fact, she insisted we bring it home simply because she felt so sorry for it.

And as you can see in the picture, it turned out beautiful. That scrawny tree made her entire home smell like a fresh forest, and it gave her weeks of delight. I can’t wait to go pick out another one with her this year.

When it comes to Christmas trees, there are two camps: those who think real trees are better for the environment, and those who think fake trees are better.

So what’s the truth?

Well, I have to admit I used to be on the fake side. I used to abhor the thought of “cutting down a tree”, just for Christmas. It seemed so, murderous. So, I bought a fake one and reused it year after year.

But, that’s before I started this blog. Now? Now I know better. Real Christmas trees are actually better for the environment. Let’s look at why.

The Dangers of Fake Christmas Trees

It’s really astonishing how bad fake Christmas trees are for both our health, and the environment.

Strike reports that almost all fake trees come from China. PVC chips (one of the most dangerous forms of plastic) are melted down to form the tree “needles”. Several carcinogens like dioxin, ethylene dichloride, and vinyl chloride are produced during the production of PVC, and these pollute neighborhoods, as well as the food chain, around the factory where the trees are made.

The workers who make artificial trees only get paid around $100 per week. They work in dirty, horrendous factories, and spend all day breathing in fumes from this melting plastic.

Strike Two: ABC News reports that some artificial trees may be made with lead. And when they heat up (with lights, a fireplace, or a sunny window), that lead can release fumes into your home. Not good. And it’s not just the lead you have to worry about: several other chemicals found in the plastic can end up in your home.

Need another piece of horrifying information? Yeah, I thought so! The State of California puts warning labels on all plastic trees, warning of lead poisoning, and they advise people to wash their hands after handling. Do you really want something like that in your home? Yikes.

Strike Three: Earth 911 reports that artificial Christmas trees are made from non-recyclable plastic. Which means that once its life is over, it’s over. Yes, you get to reuse it for years, but every time an artificial tree gets sent to a landfill, it’s going to stay there.

Are there benefits? Sure there are.

Like I said earlier, artificial trees are reused year after year. The longer you keep using one, the better. And, reusing your artificial tree also saves you money each year when you don’t have to go out and buy a new one.

The Perks of a Real Tree…

Ok, I know it can be hard to walk around a Christmas tree lot and look at all those cut down trees. But hear me out here…

Perk One: Christmas tree farmers grow trees. Which means that for each tree that’s cut down, Christmas tree farmers plant 1-3 seedlings in its place. And while these trees grow (usually over 8 years), they’re helping remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Perk Two: When you buy a live Christmas tree, you’re supporting a farmer. And, probably a local one. Instead of helping support the Chinese economy, live Christmas trees keep your money local. The Smithsonian reports that the Christmas tree farming industry helps support over 100,000 American jobs. This industry makes a big difference to a lot of families.

Perk Three: Live Christmas trees are recyclable. Most cities pick up trees after the holidays and chip them up for mulch, which is repurposed elsewhere. If you don’t live in an area that picks up your tree curbside, you can check to find a local recycling facility.

Perk Four: The smell. You just can’t beat that wonderful, live Christmas tree smell. I’d way rather breathe in the natural fumes of a Spruce than the plastic off-gassing from an artifical tree.

Perk Five: When you buy a live tree you also cut down on the gas and pollution it takes to haul those fake trees all the way from China.

So, what are the downsides to live Christmas trees?

Well, many farmers do spray pesticides on their trees each year to help them grow better. These pesticides, just like with any crop, run off into the local watershed.

Plus, you have to buy a new one each year, which adds up.

Last Word…

Compared to all the negative consequences of artificial trees, I think live trees still come out way ahead. I’m going out to buy a live tree this week, and I have to admit I’m super excited.

One tip: If you want to do double good when buying a live tree, see if any local charities are selling them. For instance, here in my neck of the woods the Howell Nature Center is selling Christmas trees. The Howell Nature Center takes hurt animals (like squirrels hit by cars, foxes that are shot by hunters, or birds that fly into windows) and rehabilitates them so they can be set free again.

Proceeds from their Christmas tree sales go to help fund their animal infirmary. So, my dollars are doing double-duty when I go buy my tree from them.

Check your local paper or do a Google search to see if any local charities in your area are selling trees to raise money.

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[email protected] November 30, 2009 at 11:56 am

Live trees that can be planted after the holidays are a great option. I recently saw a story about a business in Canada that rents out live trees, and takes care of installing them and planting them afterward.

Ken November 30, 2009 at 3:45 pm

I’ve always loved having a live tree. It’s fun to go and pick one out and decorate it. The only pain is removing it as needles get everywhere. I’ve turned to using an old sheet rather than the convenient but non-biodegradable plastic bag that can usually be purchased with the tree.

Jennifer November 30, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Thanks for writing about this! I’ve been trying to decide on this myself, and I think you’ve tipped the scales for me. I had no idea the trees were made in China, and the lead… Besides, you have to spend so much money to get a decent fake tree.

M.R. December 2, 2009 at 2:18 pm

You forgot one other option: renting a potted live Christmas tree! There’s a number of companies doing this now:

heather December 2, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Thanks everyone for chiming in about this!

@Jennifer- If you do buy a real one and have it “wrapped’ in that plastic netting to take home, remember, birds and/or fish and other animals can easily get caught up in that if it doesn’t make it to the landfill. I cut up my netting last night. It was a tedious chore, that’s for sure, but I can recycle the plastic here (I think), and I don’t have to worry about any animals getting caught in it!

@M.R. Thank you so much for sending that link; I had no idea you could “rent” a potted tree! That’s why I didn’t buy one this year. My yard is so small that I didn’t have anywhere to plant it.
It’s a brilliant idea; I’ll have to see if there are any places to do that around here.

RenaissanceRonin December 7, 2009 at 7:01 pm


C’mon now! Take it easy on Chinese fake trees! They ship them over in shipping containers (which STAY here… because of the trade imbalance)!

These huge steel (empty) containers get stacked all the way up to the sky, taking up valuable land, blotting out the sun, and getting in the way of all that cooling wind that we need so badly, to keep our homes comfortable…

Um… ah crap… never mind…

Hey, at least we can build cool ‘affordable’ homes out of the abandoned containers… 😉

Oy-Oy-Oy! Happy Holidays!


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