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Which Christmas tree is best for the environment? Real, fake, or 'used' fake?

Here's your guide to making the best decision this year

by Kate S. Petersen
E4C/E+/Getty Images

As Earth edges ever closer to climate calamity, the holiday season presents a new opportunity to take action and make a greener, cleaner choice when it comes to the center piece of many households: the Christmas tree.

But while you might want to make the best-practice purchase, both the artificial and natural tree industries argue their product is best for the environment.

Here, Inverse sheds some light on this year’s holiday dilemma…

What kind of trees are Christmas trees?

Christmas trees are usually conifers of some kind, including fir, pine, and spruce species.

Whether you go for a fake or a real tree this holiday season, there are other choices you can make to benefit the environment all year round.

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Where are real Christmas trees grown?

According to Sightline Institute, about 9 million Christmas trees are harvested from farms in the Pacific Northwest every year. Oregon leads the United States in terms of production, and Washington is number five. Christmas trees are also grown in the Great Lakes region and across the Northeast.

NBC News previously reported that six counties, four in Oregon and two in North Carolina, make up more than fifty percent of Christmas tree production. Ashe County in North Carolina was the largest producer, according to NBC News.

What are the environmental consequences of a real Christmas tree?

“One of the things associated with the real Christmas tree is that it can be sprayed with chemical pesticides that are bad for workers and the environment,” Kelley Dennings, a campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, tells Inverse.

These chemicals can include glyphosate, a known endocrine disrupter and carcinogen.

Jill Sidebottom, an Area Extension Forestry Specialist at North Carolina State University, tells Inverse North Carolina's Christmas tree farmers typically use less pesticides than do food crop farmers, and that pest-control tactics vary based on geographic location.

There are some serious silver linings to real trees, too. Dennings says buying a farmed Christmas tree is a way to support local economies and Christmas tree farms do sequester carbon and provide habitat, although not as effectively as a more diverse ecosystem would.

“It’s better than… a subdivision,” Dennings says.

She also says organic trees are an option, which would avoid some of the concerns regarding toxic chemicals in pesticides or other growth agents.

A Christmas tree farm

lillisphotography / Getty Images

What happens to real Christmas trees after December?

Options for Christmas-tree disposal include the landfill, burning, and recycling for mulch. Of these, landfilling is the worst option for the environment, because the tree will produce methane as it decomposes — a potent greenhouse gas. Burning also releases emissions into the atmosphere. Recycling a tree thorough mulching is best in environmental terms because it encourages carbon sequestration and soil fertility as it composts.

As previously reported by Inverse, you could also consider eating your tree.

Can I recycle my tree?

The answer is likely 'yes.' Dennings says that most municipalities in the United States have Christmas tree recycling programs.

RecycleNow.com has a recycling facility search tool to help you find a place to recycle your tree near you.

But what if you can't have a real tree, or prefer not to deal with the needles dropping? You might opt for a fake tree.

What are plastic trees made from?

According to research body Sightline Institute, most artificial trees are made from a combination of PVC and steel.

“Artificial trees are not great,” Dennings says.

In addition to being created from fossil fuels and toxic chemicals, they are “harmful to the climate," she says. They also create "toxic pollution" purely by virtue of their existence. PVC is a potentially toxic material in the environment.

Artificial Christmas trees usually can’t be recycled, either. When they are discarded, they typically head for the landfill or incineration. Essentially, their creation and their destruction are both damaging to the environment.

What's the best kind of plastic tree for the environment?

Inverse did not locate any studies comparing the environmental impacts of different types of artificial Christmas trees. But there is a solid green option open to plastic tree buyers: A hand-me-down or second-hand artificial tree is definitely better for the environment than buying a new one.

What are the environmental effects of plastic Christmas trees?

The most-positive aspect of an artificial Christmas tree is that it can be used over and over, over again.

You can consider alternative Christmas tree options

Ghetea Florin / EyeEm / Getty Images

What is best: A plastic tree or a real tree?

A 2009 cradle-to-grave analysis of Christmas trees concluded natural trees were better than artificial trees from a carbon emissions perspective — but only over the short term.

Over the longer term, the two were comparable if the artificial tree were used for at least 20 years.

But here is the thing: If you want to do your best for the environment this holiday season, think outside the box.

Dennings suggests exploring alternatives to both a disposable natural tree and a potentially toxic artificial tree.

Alternatives include:

  • Buying a second-hand artificial tree.
  • Decorating potted trees or houseplants during the holidays.
  • Decorating trees in your garden.
  • Making a Christmas tree-like display out of counterintuitive objects, like books or beer cans, a la Festivus.

The Inverse analysis — No matter what tree you go for, the emissions burden from both the fake and the real kinds are pretty minimal compared to that stemming from other day-to-day consumer behavior.

“All told, your tree has a climate impact equivalent to driving roughly between 10 and 20 miles. So, bike to work a few days a year, and you’ve already offset your tree, no matter which type it is,” according to the Sightline organization's website.

They make a point: It’s easy to fixate on a purchase like a Christmas tree and ignore all of the other, every-day, single-use purchases you make throughout the rest of the year, like plastic wrapped foods, toothpicks, and printer paper, to name just three.

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