Christmas trees: Real or plastic?

Being “green” is in vogue these days, so as the holidays approach you may be pondering over which is better for the environment, a real tree or an artificial one. It’s a personal choice, but here are some facts to consider.

Artificial trees have these positive attributes: They don’t require water, don’t mess up the floor with needles, and can be reused for several years, preventing the need to cut a tree annually. On the other hand, they are plastic and therefore use a nonrenewable resource, as you can’t grow more petroleum. They are mostly produced overseas, so you can’t “buy American”. Finally, the global transportation of the trees requires a heavy use of fossil fuels, again eating into non-renewable resources.

Real trees do require extra care and work getting needles swept up, and you have to kill the tree in order to use it, unless you buy one with roots. But, Christmas tree farms intentionally grow trees to be cut, and replant trees to replace cut ones. Live trees are a renewable resource: you can grow more. They are also biodegradable and eventually decay back to the soil. This can be encouraged by taking your tree to a recycling center that chips it up for mulch.

Some fossil fuels are consumed by tree farmers to grow their crop. However, during the 5 to 10 years it takes to grow a Christmas tree, it takes up carbon dioxide and produces oxygen. They also provide some wildlife habitat benefit and beautify a landscape.

There are lots of factors to consider when choosing real or artificial, but from an environmental standpoint, real trees have some advantages, and if you buy from a local tree farm you also support the local economy. And you just can’t beat the smell of a live tree in the living room.

Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee, for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.