December 1st, 2011 by

By Katrina Marland

Credit: Flickr/Joe Buckingham

I’m really looking forward to this weekend. Every year on the first weekend of December, the Christmas tree goes up at my house. Being a holiday nut, I love kicking off the season by picking out and decorating the perfect tree. With this exciting event on the horizon, I thought it a good time to revisit that “evergreen” environmental debate: real trees or artificial? Despite what some may think, the answer is not as simple as choosing a fake tree so that a real one won’t be cut down. Not even close.

Real trees are grown and harvested domestically, often locally, while artificial trees, like most goods that are manufactured half a world away (85 percent of fake trees in the U.S. are made in China), are brought in by carbon-emitting planes, trains, and automobiles. Buying from a local tree farm also supports small business and the local economy, instead of large corporations and economies overseas.

Are artificial trees less of a fire hazard? Nope, that’s just a myth. Most materials used in artificial trees aren’t just flammable, they contain enough chemicals (including lead and PVC) to create a more toxic smoke when burned. While a real tree is flammable, if you care for it properly it won’t present much more of a fire hazard than the rest of your living room. And if you’re worried about fire, buy LED lights for your tree since they don’t heat up as much, and plug them into a surge protector instead of directly into the socket.

When it comes to disposal, there’s a clear winner. Whether a real tree lands in a mulch pile, compost heap or landfill, the waste is 100 percent biodegradable. Most artificial trees are made from metal and plastic, which means your one-time tannenbaum will be decorating a landfill for decades to come.

What about the environmental impact of cutting down a tree? Remember, tree farms are farms, not forests, and their trees are grown as crops. As they grow, they support the local ecosystem, providing the same natural benefits. Because they are cut down at a certain age — between 4 and 15 years, depending on the species and the desired size — the farmers often plant rotating crops, which means that for every tree brought home to deck the halls, another is already being grown back on the farm and more are planted the following spring. Because the farmers rely on a healthy environment to produce their product, they have to be careful not to overuse or mistreat the land, and to keep the local ecosystem healthy and balanced.

So there you have it. If the wonderful smell and the fun of going out to pick your own tree each year aren’t enough to convince you, real trees are also the clear eco-friendly option. And no, a real tree doesn’t mean you have to wait; care for the tree correctly and it should last the full month, if not longer. Now get decorating!

PS – Tonight they light the National Christmas Tree, so don’t forget to stop by if you’re in the D.C. area, or to tune in live on TV or online at www.thenationaltree.org.