real or fake?…
the tree dilemma

Christmas Tree

Real or fake? It’s kind of like the grocery store clerk asking, “paper or plastic”? The best answer is “neither, thank you.” While that’s a simple answer when it comes to grocery bags, it gets a little more complicated when talking Christmas trees. Grocery bags don’t carry the weight of tradition and nostalgia. Christmas trees, on the other hand, are inextricably wound up in our holiday memories and plans.

So, real or fake? If it sounds like an easy question, it’s not.

Fake trees are usually made from materials that are themselves harmful to the environment, not to mention the manufacturing process, shipping and everything else that goes into them. On the other hand, they can be reused year after year. But what do you do with them when they’re finally done?

Real trees are natural, a renewable resource and have the benefit of smelling great. On the other hand, they are a one-time use, require gas to get from tree farm to you (whether you drive to the farm, or the farm delivers it to your local lot – and where is that farm, by the way) and then there is the disposal problem.

But what about air quality?

A fake tree is inviting a chemical soup into your holiday celebrations, especially over the first few years of its life. A real tree isn’t exactly perfect, however, as they can be sources of allergens.

And since we’re talking about it, if you wanted to calculate the carbon footprint of real vs. fake you’d have to consider the water used to grow a real tree vs. produce the fake. Plus, what about combustibility?

So much for that easy question, right?

No matter which way you turn, there are studies that contradict one another. This one says real is best; the next one claims fake is the way to go.

Realistically, the only 100% sustainable choice is to either decorate an outdoor tree with organic, locally-sourced bird- and deer-safe edible decorations (and skip the indoor version) or to get a live tree with a root ball still attached and plant it after the holiday.

If either of those is not an option, or just doesn’t appeal to you, then you’re back at the real vs. fake debate and like Christmas sweaters, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Going real? Try to choose a tree from a local (or as local as possible) organic farm. Local Harvest can help you find a grower in your area. Choose a type of tree that grows well in your area and requires minimal water, pesticide and fertilizer use. Talk to the grower, they should be able to tell you the best choices. When it comes to decorating, skip the chemical-laden fake snow and Mylar tinsel to keep things on the greener side. Make sure to keep your tree moist and when you’re all done with it, convert it to firewood, mulch or compost.

Going fake? Look for trees made in the US, you might pay a bit more but you’ll reduce the chance of lead or other toxin contamination. Plan to purchase a tree that will last at least 10 years, and when the time does come to dispose of it, look for opportunities to donate it to a shelter or charity. At this time, most recycling programs do not accept artificial trees and they’ll take essentially forever to degrade in a landfill.

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2 thoughts on “real or fake?…
the tree dilemma

  1. We have a program in the Kansas City area that solves some of the dilenma for me: red cedar trees are an invasive species on the local prairie. Each year, a conservation society hosts a Saturday tree-cutting. You’re invited to come out, cut down as many trees as you like for the donation of your choice. It’s a great way to experience the Christmas tree tradition while doing something positive for our local environment.

    Then after Christmas, you can take your tree to a local park for recycling: the trees are taken to area lakes where they’re then used as environments for fish.

    I’d be willing to bet that there are tree recycling programs all over the country, just as there are light recycling programs!

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