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Real or fake: Which kind of Christmas tree is best?

Pros, cons, and nuance

Credit: Getty Images / Sinenkiy

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If you’ve moved into a new home, or this is your first holiday out on your own, it’s the perfect time to make a new tradition for yourself. But before you do, you've got to ask yourself, which kind of Christmas tree to buy: real or fake?

A common way this question gets framed is in terms of environmental impact. As it turns out, that’s often the wrong focus—which tree you use accounts for less than 0.1% of your annual carbon footprint. There are responsible ways to use either kind of tree (which we’ll get into later), but in reality, whether you choose real, artificial or no tree at all, the environmental effect will be less significant than deciding to carpool into work just once.

That being said, there are other, more tangible reasons to choose which tree is right for you.

Pros and cons of a real Christmas tree

Credit: Getty Images / ClarkAndCompany

Real trees are probably the most environmentally friendly and create a more authentic-feeling experience for some, but they come with a lot of hassle.

Pro: Some consider it a more authentic holiday experience

There’s a difference between setting up an artificial facsimile and bringing a living thing into your home that you need to nurture. The Christmas tree is often the centerpiece of the holiday, so the details do matter. Everything from the look and feel to the fresh scent of pine are impossible to replicate.

Con: They can be flammable

Part of a pine tree’s iconic scent comes from terpenes, which are inherently flammable. This is doubly true for dried-up trees. This is why forest fires can spread so quickly. Most modern artificial trees are much more fire-resistant.

Con: They’re high maintenance

Unless you want to celebrate Christmas around a brown and blighted husk of a tree, you’ll need to actively care for your new plant friend, whether it is cut or has roots. With pre-cut trees, the base of the trunk is already dried up and dead—make sure to cut about an inch off the bottom so it can absorb water.

Also, getting a Christmas tree inside your home combines all the skills necessary for moving a full-size couch with the additional anxiety that bumping anything will scatter Yuletide debris across your floor, bread-crumbing its route from your car to your living room. If you manage to install the tree without losing 20% of its needles, it’s a Christmas miracle.

Those needles shed constantly, even if you’re taking great care of it (and significantly more so if you aren’t). You’ll need to sweep up after it on the daily to prevent build-up of flammable fragments (or get a robot vac to do it for you).

Pros and cons of an artificial Christmas tree

Credit: Getty Images / Alina Demidenko

An artificial tree is much more convenient in a lot of ways, from price to setup to upkeep. The problem—recycling them can sometimes be difficult.

Pro: They’re convenient

Modern artificial trees can break down into many different parts, allowing you to easily move it around your home. When in storage, they can often condense down quite a lot. Furthermore, you don’t need to water it or vacuum up all pine needles.

Pro: They can cost less—at least over time

If you buy a good, inexpensive artificial tree this year, it will likely be more expensive than a real tree. You will pay more up front compared to a real tree, even though the cost of real trees has been rising. Where you start to save money is when you reuse your artificial tree in subsequent years. You can typically use an artificial tree for a decade, which is significantly more budget-friendly than purchasing a real tree each year (just make sure you recycle them when you're done).

Con: They can be subject to bad manufacturing processes

Like anything manufactured, artificial trees can sometimes be made on the cheap, which has a whole host of downsides. Make sure the tree you buy is flame-resistant or outright fireproof—lower-quality trees can indeed be quite flammable. Make sure user reviews don’t feature frequent complaints about the needles shedding constantly, because that simply means it’s not going to last a very long time, causing higher costs for you and the environment.

Con: They’re not always as good as the real thing

No artificial tree is going to have the look, smell, or feel of a real tree. It’s not a living thing. Whether or not that’s a dealbreaker is up to you.

Which kind of tree is more environmentally friendly?

Again, deciding to carpool once is a more important decision than which tree you use, but let's get into the nuance of which option results in the least environmental harm.

Assuming you purchase a tree grown locally and responsibly (and you also recycle it afterward), buying a real tree will create the least harm to the environment.

The issue is, all of those qualifiers need to be true. If you get a tree shipped to you or it wasn’t grown with sustainable farming practices, that could be enough to tip the scales. Also, if your city throws them in a landfill instead of recycling them, they’ll be producing methane for years.

For those who don’t have access to all that infrastructure, the more environmentally-conscious option might be a modern artificial tree. The key to artificial trees maintaining a lower carbon footprint to their organic counterparts is their ability to be reused, often for multiple decades. Of course, when it comes time to dispose of your tree, you need to look for a local recycling program or ship it off to a second-hand store. Artificial trees are made from PVC, which is very costly to recycle and breaks down into various poisons when disposed of in a landfill.

Either way you go, the most crucial step is ensuring you can properly recycle your tree. Failing to do so, regardless of what type of tree you have, is where the bulk of environmental harm is done.

Which option is right for you?

If you can get a locally-sourced, sustainably-farmed tree with intact roots (or you have a plan for recycling it), and you don’t mind lugging a giant tree from the curb to your living room and then caring for it during its stay, a live tree is probably the best way to go.

If you don’t want all that hassle (or don’t have access to tree recycling), and you pledge a solemn oath to use the same tree for years before recycling it, an artificial tree is a much simpler option. We even got a bunch of different highly-rated artificial trees to determine which of those were the best, if you want a good starting point.

Regardless of which option you choose, they’re both going to look great surrounded by friends, family, and gifts. So carpool into work a few times, pick your tree of choice, stock up on the best gifts, and enjoy your holiday.

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