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Last week, I shared some tips for selecting a fresh, or “real,” Christmas tree. However, that is just one choice out there. Each year, households across America debate the decision of real vs. artificial for the family Christmas tree. Key points may include tradition, aesthetics, and, more recently, sustainability.

The Ohio State University’s Elizabeth Myers Toman tackled that last point in a 2018 article “Real vs. Artificial: Which Tree is More Sustainable?” An assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, Toman looked at three points: 1) the carbon footprint, 2) miles traveled to either buy an artificial tree or to pick one out from a lot or cut-your-own operation, and 3) the returns a real tree gives vs. an artificial one.

Her main finding? “If you buy and use an artificial tree at least four years, its environmental impact equals that of a fresh-cut tree purchased every year for the same number of years.”

You might wonder how that is possible? “That’s because each year’s drive to buy a real tree adds to the amount of carbon dioxide and other climate change caused by carbon compound entering the atmosphere. Buying a plastic tree typically involves one trip to the store, which is usually a nearby retailer, then only annual trips by foot to the attic or basement to retrieve it every December.” 

How far you drive to get that real tree makes a difference as well. If you drive 25 miles or more to get your real tree, guess what? “The overall carbon footprint is greater than that of an artificial tree, even if you use the artificial tree only once before tossing it.”

Toman teaches a course about the life cycle of products from production to disposal to determine their total effect on the environment. Her findings include:

  • Live Trees: “While they’re alive, trees take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen — a plus for the environment. And if they’re composted or even burned after they’re taken down, key nutrients return to the soil. All good.”
  • Artificial Trees: “An artificial tree is made of plastic, typically manufactured in a factory overseas, then transported to the United States, all of which has a carbon footprint. But the longer the artificial tree is used, the effect on the environment can become less than that of a real tree.”

It's not just about the tree itself though. “Holiday lights, whether they’re LED or incandescent, have more of an effect on the environment than whether the tree is plastic or real,” said Toman. Using incandescent lights on a Christmas tree for just one season can have “greater energy demand than the total energy required over the lifetime of a tree to manufacture, transport and dispose of the tree, whether artificial or real.”

Certainly where the tree ends up factors into its environmental impact. Some of Toman’s final considerations may make us feel better. 

  • Live Trees: “At the end of the holiday season, a real tree that’s composted can return to the soil crucial nutrients that will in turn help spur the growth of other trees.”
  • Artificial Trees: “When the artificial tree is no longer needed or wanted, donating it will offer it another life with a different home enjoyed by a different collection of people, rather than lodged in a landfill where it will take hundreds of years to degrade.”

Learn more about this debate from Illinois Extension Educator Chris Enroth in his December 2018 blog at https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/good-growing

Plus, don’t forget about the option of living Christmas trees, which you can plant in your yard later. Watch a short video about choosing and caring for a live Christmas tree at https://go.illinois.edu/LivingChristmasTreeVideo