Fake vs Real: Which Christmas Trees are Greenest?

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles I was always attracted to the Christmas lots that had trees frosted with pink or turquoise fake snow. (What were they thinking?) I have yet to see those special specimens since, but it’s no surprise that as an adult I lean toward non-traditional trees. Part of that is just my stubborn attraction to the unique, but much of it stems from my feelings for trees.

Although I know that Christmas trees are farmed like any other harvested plant, it still makes me sad to think of those noble little guys whacked down for my temporary pleasure. But my humble homemade feather tree is starting to molt—and I wonder if it’s time to join the 29 million American households who will buy a fresh cut tree this year? Or should I opt for an artificial tree? How about a living tree that will take a Christmas miracle of its own to actually end up planted in my garden? To forego a tree altogether is way too bah-humbug for me, so what is the greenest Christmas tree option?

Next: Greening your Christmas tree

Fresh Cut Trees
In the early 1900s as the result of the craze for Christmas trees, the natural supply of evergreens began to dwindle.

Conservationists became alarmed and began to encourage people to use artificial trees, the early versions consisting of branches of deciduous trees wrapped in cotton. In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt requested no fresh cut trees in the White House out of concern for the forests. But the same year, a wise farmer started the first Christmas tree farm and the rest is history.

Nowadays almost all of the nearly 30 million Christmas trees Americans use for decoration are grown on farms—like flowers, or vegetables. But when you realize that a Christmas tree takes six to 12 years to grow, it seems like a lot of effort involved for a few weeks of holiday spirit. Not to be the Grinch here, but when you consider the use of water, pesticides and herbicides, in combination with soil erosion and the energy used to maintain the crop and transport the trees, well, I don’t know. On the other hand, the trees are renewable, provide habitat for wild animals, absorb carbon dioxide and create oxygen, and the industry provides many jobs. Still mass agriculture is mass agriculture, so if you decide on a fresh cut tree follow these tips.

• Try to buy an organic Christmas tree.
• Buy from smaller, local farms to reduce transportation miles and support a small, sustainable operation.
• Recycle your tree! Check your local municipality to see if there is Christmas tree recycling near you, or read here for tips on how to recycle on your own.
• Don’t use tinsel or fake snow spray; they are hard to remove and make your tree ineligible for recycling.

Artificial Trees
So is there any green logic behind using an artificial tree? They save a real tree and they can be reused, it’s true. However…well, where should we start? In the end, artificial trees don’t come out even in the carbon balance. Petroleum is used to make the plastics in the trees and lots of carbon dioxide-creating energy is required to make and transport them–and they are difficult to recycle. In addition, three out of four fake trees are made in China under less than favorable labor conditions. Fake trees made in China are required by California Proposition 65 to carry a scary warning label for lead content. The potential for lead poisoning is serious and frightening.

If the threat of lead isn’t bad enough, there is the PVC issue. Most artificial Christmas trees are made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride)—often referred to as vinyl, as well as “the poison plastic.” According to the Campaign for Safe, Healthy Consumer Products, PVC is dangerous to human health and the environment throughout its entire life cycle, at the factory, in our homes, and in the trash. Our bodies are contaminated with poisonous chemicals released during the PVC lifecycle, such as mercury, dioxins, and phthalates, which may pose irreversible lifelong health threats. When produced or burned, PVC plastic releases dioxins, a group of the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested, which can cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems. That is so not festive.

Live Trees
It would seem that the greenest way to enjoy a Christmas tree is to buy a live tree to replant when the holiday has passed. However, there are numerous things to consider when exploring this option. Since trees are dormant in the winter, live trees can stay no more than a week indoors or they will wake up and begin to grow again in the warmth. If this happens there is a good chance the tree will not survive once it is returned to the cold winter outdoors. It also needs gradual transition to the interior climate, and then again when it goes back outside. If you live in a climate where the ground will be frozen, you need to pre-dig a hole for the tree before the ground freezes. You also need to research what type of tree will do well with your soil and climate. See these tips for buying and caring for a live tree.

Alternative Trees
It was a puppy-shredded down pillow that inspired the crafting of my feather tree (as in, oh my goodness, all these feathers, what to do?!). And although it falls firmly into the Charlie Brown class of Christmas trees, it is sweet and has become a tradition in our home. If you don’t have an old down pillow in need of re-use, you can buy a feather tree kit here.

Some people swear by ornament trees—sculptural arboreal forms to hang ornaments from–and some of those trees are pretty cute. Ornament trees can be decorated seasonally and thus used all year, and can be used to clip photos and mementos to as well—visit this site for a huge selection of ornament trees. You can also make a natural ornament tree by gathering some dramatic dormant branches from outdoors and setting them in a large, weighted vase.

And of course, you can always decorate a houseplant. I have seen some fabulous ornament-bedecked, twinkling cacti, or how about a giant rosemary bush (like the one above) that can be planted outside when the weather turns from frightful to fruitful.


Jo S.
Jo S2 years ago

Thank you Melissa.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for info.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for info.

Laura M.
Past Member 6 years ago

Where I come from in Louisiana, all the trees become sandbar reinforcements after christmas, which helps slow coastal erosion. So I don't mind my parents buying a new one every year. Plus, the smell adds to their worth! But for myself, when I grow up, I think I'd like to have a living tree or cactus. That would be superb! And I could use some pine and cinnamon oils for cleaning during december to sort-of mimic the smell in my home. ^_^

Cef V.
Cef V.6 years ago

Quite ironic is the fact that the "Christmas" tree is supposed to be an icon of immortality and life in the harsh winter nights, but millions of trees en up dead after a sad decay under flashy lights and plastic ornaments...

Imagine what would happen if instead of chopping down a tree for these annual rituals we would plant one every year.

Millions of new trees planted every year would really make a merry little Christmas for me.


MoonfireWolf C.
6 years ago

The living tree is the greenest because it can be used year after year if taken care of. And each year it will be better than the year past. When it gets too tall, then plant it outside and decorate it there.

Nancy Buatis
Nancy Buatis6 years ago

I would love to have a real tree for a Christmas Tree.:) I am planning to have one this Christmas with all the natural trimmings and natural decors to adorn the Tree:) Yehey!!!!

ilse diels
.6 years ago

Well no tree here, I tree is the beatifulest outside in the woods. And plastic I found not needed. But then again ,, I have cats :)

Mary R.
Mary R6 years ago

not to mention that the farm land if not used to grow trees could be developed and exploited for something else...

Mary R.
Mary R6 years ago

Well, I think of it this way. Fake trees are made in China. Real trees are farmed in the US and Canada, giving jobs to more local folks - not just the farmers, but also the truck drivers and many retail distributors including non-profits that benefit by selling them. A good way to spread a dollar these days.