Is it better to buy a real or artificial Christmas tree?
There's more nuance to the debate than you might think.
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If you’re just getting a new place, or this is your first holiday out on your own, it’s the perfect time to make a new tradition for yourself. So once you’ve got the perfect Christmas tree stand all picked out, it’s choose which to buy: a real tree or an artificial one?
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 tree
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’s 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, breadcrumbing 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.
Pros and cons of an artificial tree
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 to a single small package—or multiple, to keep the weight down. Furthermore, you don’t need to water it or vacuum up all pine needles.
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.
Pro: They can cost less
If you buy a good, inexpensive artificial tree, you’re already paying about half what you’d pay for a real tree, especially because those costs have been rising. On top of that, you get a tree you can use for decades. It’s significantly more budget-friendly than purchasing a new real tree each year.
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 is more environmentally friendly?
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. All those qualifiers need to be true, however. If you get a tree shipped to you or it wasn’t grown with sustainable farming practices, that’s 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 most environmentally-conscious option is 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.
Additionally important: When it comes time to dispose of your tree, either 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.
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 an 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 need a 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.