The Great Christmas Tree Debate – Real or Artificial?
If you celebrate Christmas, one of the biggest activities is decorating a Christmas tree. Whether a tree is artificial or real is a personal choice, and there are most definitely pros and cons to both. Rather than debate the pros and cons of each from a general perspective, let’s examine the differences based on sustainability alone.
A real tree
Christmas tree farms exist around the country and the world. Trees are grown for years, watered, fertilized and trimmed; all in preparation for harvesting them over a 6-week period. During their growing phase, they provide habitat for local animals, emit lots of oxygen into the air and absorb carbon dioxide, all of which are quite positive.
During this same time, a Christmas tree farmer either irrigates or not and either uses pesticides or not, both of which can negatively impact the environment. Irrigation redirects water from other places in order to sustain the trees, and pesticides can contaminate local water supplies, harming plants and animals. So, although there are significant positives, there can be some negatives as well.
Now, it’s harvest time. Do the trees stay locally or are they shipped to other locations? The shipping of trees decreases the sustainability aspect as it requires a lot of gasoline to accomplish. Keeping the trees local and having customers come to the farm is advantageous from the transportation perspective, but still requires gasoline from individual families.
Many Christmas tree farmers establish their business with a keen eye on protecting the environment, so many are conscientious of how they are farming. They avoid using pesticides and minimize irrigation, so they are minimizing their environmental impacts and maximizing the benefits. To keep the farms going, they often plant 3-5 new trees for every tree that is harvested, so there is expansion in the number of trees over time. Purchasing a tree from a local farmer supports local agriculture which is always a good thing.
After the holidays, the question becomes: what do we do with the tree? In some areas, discarded Christmas trees are deposited straight into the landfill. This takes up valuable space and although the tree will decompose over time, filling up the landfills does not appear to be a good long-term idea. Sending it to a recycling center where it can be mulched and used on walking trails and in parks is a great alternative. This option works well in my area. In the end, the tree that came from the ground goes back into the ground, a full cycle system.
Another real tree alternative is to get one that can be planted after the holidays. People refer to this type of tree as a live tree. Prior planning and preparation are encouraged to make this endeavor successful. We all know that digging in the ground in January is challenging at best in colder climates, so planning ahead, digging a hole and filling it with leaves is a great way to ensure you have the ability to plant it in the middle of winter. This can be a great option for adding trees to your landscape.
An artificial tree
Artificial trees are made from plastics which are not environmentally friendly. That said, a well-made artificial tree can last for decades. Unfortunately, at some point, the artificial tree will need to be discarded, and the vast majority end up in the landfill.
Before you set the artificial tree out at the curb, think outside the box and look at ways to upcycle the components of the tree. You could make wreaths or other decorations with the components that are still in good shape before discarding the rest. That way, only part of it is being tossed in the landfill and the rest kept out for a longer period of time.
About 10 years ago, manufacturers thought it would be a great idea to incorporate lights on a tree so that families would not have to add their own. Unfortunately, when the lights no longer work, the tree becomes a nuisance. Removing the lights from the tree is a task best left to the uber patient, so what tends to happen is that people discard their tree once the lights no longer work which increases waste rather than decreases it.
When we purchased our artificial tree, 20 some years ago, I was under the impression that purchasing real trees was wasteful. At the time, we lived in a place that did not have a tree recycling program, so I only saw it getting added to the landfill. Finally, from a cost point of view, spending $100-$150 on a well-made artificial tree that could be used year after year was much less expensive than paying $50 (at a minimum) each year for a real tree.
Bottom line – from the sustainability standpoint, a real tree is the best option, ideally one that is grown locally and organically. Even if you can’t recycle it, it will eventually decompose in the landfill. Artificial trees are not sustainable because no matter how long you use it, it will still never decompose. If you already have an artificial tree, like me, just continue to use it until it falls apart, then see if you can upcycle parts of it before throwing the rest in the landfill. One of the keys to living an earth-friendly lifestyle is to use items for as long as possible and not to be so quick to discard them. Use everything that you purchase until it wears out, and even then, see if you can repurpose it for something else before casting it aside.  
From a personal perspective, we all need to do what works for us and our family. As several of my readers pointed out, obtaining a real tree is labor intensive and as we age, we’re not all able to do this as easily as we once were. We simply need to do our best and be happy with 

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