Real vs. artificial Christmas trees: which are better for the environment?

Christmas Tree
Photo credit Getty Images

Real versus artificial Christmas trees isn't just a debate over which looks better in your home. Many people might be wondering which option is more eco-friendly.

Is it better to cut down a tree every holiday season -- or should you invest in an artificial tree you can use year after year?

While you might think putting up an artificial Christmas tree would spare the life of a real tree and have less of an impact on the environment, that isn't necessarily the case.

While fake trees can be used year after year, they have shelf lives of approximately six years before they're thrown away, Andy Finton, the landscape conservation director for the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, told CNN. That isn't nearly long enough to balance out the carbon footprint the plastic trees will leave once they're discarded.

"It would take 20 years for the carbon balance to be about equivalent," Finton said. "If the artificial trees are used for a longer lifespan, that balance changes."

Additionally, most artificial trees are produced and shipped from China, which creates an even larger carbon footprint with all it takes to transport them to the United States.

On the other hand, cutting down healthy trees isn't nearly as damaging to the environment as you might think.

It takes Christmas tree farmers seven years to grow trees, which absorb carbon dioxide -- which causes global warming -- from the air as they grow, Doug Hundley of the National Christmas Tree Association told CNN. Plus, there's a sustainability factor -- for every tree purchased, one to three seedlings are planted in its place.

"When we harvest the trees or cut them, we plant back very quickly," Hundley said.

Buying a real tree also has an economic benefit, since most trees are grown at nearby businesses.

"What we're doing by purchasing a natural Christmas tree is supporting local economies, local communities, local farmers," Finton said. "When a tree grower can reap economic benefits from their land, they're less likely to sell it for development and less likely to convert it to other uses."

When it comes to disposal, real Christmas trees are also more eco-friendly.

Artificial trees are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable, meaning they will sit in a landfill for centuries after disposal. A real tree, on the other hand, can be disposed like yard waste to be recycled or composted.

"When the tree is finished being used by the homeowner, it's very easy and and common in America to have the tree chipped up into mulch -- and that's stored carbon is put back in the ground," Hundley said.

If more people were to buy real trees, it would be a powerful weapon in fighting climate change, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

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