Every year people are faced with the decision: Is it better to get a real Christmas tree or an artificial Christmas tree?
In order to make a more informed choice, it is important to look at the main ways in which the two types of Christmas trees differ, the main factors where one might have an edge over the other, even if in the end it still comes down to personal preference.
Real Christmas tree prices vary a great deal, depending on your location, what species of tree you’re interested in, etc., but typically run about $25-$100. So figure $50 or so for most people.
Artificial Christmas trees vary even more in price, depending on the quality and durability among other things, but they tend to run $50-$300, with some particularly large and elaborate ones costing upwards of $1,000. But realistically, let’s say you’re looking at about $200 for a decent artificial tree.
But even if we use these figures and say you’ll probably pay about four times as much if you go with an artificial tree, there’s obviously another relevant factor related to cost that we need to consider. With the real tree, you’re spending $50 (by our hypothesis) per year, whereas you’re spending $200 (again, by our hypothesis) one time for the artificial tree and using it for as long as it lasts.
How many years is that? Unless you get the shoddiest artificial tree that’s going to fall apart in your hands, certainly you should get at least five years out of it. But as long as you don’t accidentally sit on it in its box, let the dog chew on it, etc., there’s no reason it shouldn’t last more like ten or fifteen years.
So short term, if you’re just looking at what you’re going to have to shell out now to get a tree, you’ll probably pay something like four times as much for the artificial tree.
Long term, if we take into account that you’re reusing the artificial tree, that reverses itself and you’ll probably instead pay three or four times as much to get real trees.
Most people’s first thought is that clearly you’re doing more damage to the environment by cutting down a tree that you’re going to use for a week to a month and then discard.
But if you think it through, that may not be the case.
Artificial trees are made from a petroleum-based plastic-polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This material is nonrenewable and polluting. The manufacture of PVC releases dioxin, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride into the air. The needles on artificial trees are often treated with additives, including even lead, to make them more malleable.
Artificial trees usually have to be transported much farther (85% are manufactured in China) than real trees, which usually come from close to where they are purchased. Transportation means burning more fossil fuels.
When it comes time to dispose of them, artificial trees are not biodegradable. They either take up space in a landfill indefinitely, or they are incinerated and release all their chemicals into the air.
Real trees are farmed, like any crop. When one is cut down, one is immediately planted to replace it. (Actually two or three are usually planted to replace it.) When it is disposed of, it is fully biodegradable and simply returns to the earth.
Now, maybe you can say that if it weren’t cut down at all, and didn’t need to be transported, and didn’t need to be replaced, that would be even better for the environment. But it’s not as if in the absence of a demand for Christmas trees, the tree would have been able to live out its natural life. In all likelihood, it wouldn’t have ever come into existence, because that land would be used for some other kind of farming (or for a parking lot or for a Burger King).
As land use goes, Christmas tree farming is really not too bad environmentally.
This is a big factor for many people, maybe the biggest. For traditional reasons, for sentimental reasons, all else being equal, almost everyone would prefer a real tree. People like the look of a real tree, the smell of a real tree.
Truth be told, though, the gap is narrowing. Artificial trees today are nothing like they were 20 or 50 years ago. They look a lot more like real trees, and some are even treated to smell more like real trees.
Artificial trees win hands down when it comes to convenience.
Artificial trees come neatly boxed up and are generally quite easy to assemble and set up. Real trees you may have to chop down yourself, and you’ll almost certainly have to strap them to your car and try to drive home with the unfamiliar bulk.
Artificial trees need no maintenance and don’t shed. Real trees have to be watered and maintained, and you’ll have to clean up needles, either a little or a lot depending on how much they shed.
Artificial trees you stick back in the box when you’re done with them. With real trees there’s the hassle of disposing of them.
One small convenience advantage for real trees is that once they’re gone, they’re gone (except for maybe some final needles to clean up). With an artificial tree you have a fairly large box taking up storage space all year.
5. Health and Safety
We’ve already alluded to a health factor in effect when addressing the environmental concerns with artificial trees. Lead and some of those substances they’re made of are carcinogens after all.
Beyond that, real trees can be a bit more of a fire hazard, especially if not properly maintained. Most artificial trees are treated to be flame retardant.
The needles on real trees, some species more than others, can prick you. Needles on artificial trees are manufactured so that they won’t.
Some people have allergy problems with at least some species of real trees. Artificial trees avoid this problem.
6. Economic impact
Since the vast majority of artificial trees are made overseas, that’s where you’re sending your dollars when you buy them. When you buy a real tree, you’re helping the local rural economy.
These factors can be interpreted different ways, given different weights, but roughly speaking, it appears artificial trees have a substantial edge in convenience, probably an edge in cost, and probably an edge in most health and safety factors. Real trees have an edge in environmental impact and environmental health concerns, in aesthetics and tradition, and in keeping one’s money in the local economy.
Astrid Bullen, “Artificial vs. Real Christmas Trees.” Hints and Things.
Kimberly Crandell, “The Great Debate: Real Vs. Artificial Christmas Trees.” Science 2.0.
David Hopkins, “The Christmas tree debate: Real vs. fake.” Petoskey News-Review.