The decision really does come down to your preference, not the environment or your cash outlay.
Now that the boxes of Christmas decorations are back in the attic (or garage), you may be thinking about next year’s celebration and how to make things even nicer. One of the biggest decisions people make nearly every year is whether to stay with a real tree or go artificial next year or vice versa.
It’s a big decision, for sure, because a nice (really nice) quality artificial tree will cost $600 or more (some sell for several thousand dollars). A real tree of average height is around $80, even if you cut it yourself. Since a good artificial tree that is properly stored will last five to 10 years, over the course of a decade, cost is pretty much a wash.
Both types of trees require a lot of prep work before you decorate. Artificial trees are easier to get to stand straight, but then you have to play with all those branches to make it look nice. It can take an hour or two if you do it right. The natural tree, if you made a good selection, looks just fine, but you will need to cut the trunk, get it in a study stand, maneuver it to stand straight, and water it. A lot.
There is one place artificial trees have a clear advantage: pre-lit trees. Christmas tree growers don’t have a match for that. Yet.
For environmental impact, says the American Christmas Tree Association, a household that uses an artificial tree for at least four years has a smaller carbon footprint compared to the household purchasing a real tree for four years. They cited a study done in 2010, so I found the study and read the conclusions (the study itself is 108 pages long). The study found that “the overall environmental impacts of both natural and artificial trees are extremely small when compared to other daily activities such as driving a car. Neither natural nor artificial Christmas tree purchases constitute a significant environmental impact within most American lifestyles.” So, maybe artificial trees have an edge here, but not by much in the grand scheme of things.
Of course, they’re assuming that if you purchase an artificial tree, you are going to use it for years to come. That doesn’t always work. Sometimes, you just don’t like it or the room got more clutter and it doesn’t fit anymore or you decided it was time for a pink Christmas tree. What happens to the old artificial tree? It ends up in a landfill. Don’t do that! That action is clearly bad for the environment.
If the pink tree is a necessity, and the previous year’s artificial tree is still usable, give it away. Offer it for free on a Facebook group, church, or other list. If someone wants the tree, meet them at a public place, like a grocery store parking lot or the parking lot at the local police station. Never have the person come to your home or offer to deliver it their home.
You may hear claims that some artificial trees can be recycled into plastics. I found this interesting because our local government’s recycling department says recycling plastics is an iffy thing. It’s expensive to do, so many manufacturers don’t see the point, and it takes Goldilocks to determine if it’s recyclable plastic or not (you know, just the right fit).
Lastly, as the sister of a farmer, I can’t help but remind everyone that real Christmas trees are a cash crop, just like wheat, sunflowers, soy, or corn. That means the whole “don’t cut down any trees” argument is meritless with Christmas trees (California redwoods are a different story). It takes 10 to 12 years of care to get a fir tree ready for the Christmas market. It’s work. If tree growers didn’t shape the growing trees over the years, we’d all be wrapping little blue blankets around the base of our weird little Charlie Brown tree.
Posted on November 24, 2023
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