Which Are Greener? Real or Artificial Christmas Trees

It’s a great Thanksgiving tradition — on the long weekend many families go out to find their Christmas tree.

But most of us want to make the right choice for nature. We love trees. They clean our air and water, store our carbon and lend a hand in creating many of the things we depend on, like our homes and furniture.

In the Media

Listen to Central Cascades Community Coordinator Darcy Batura discuss real versus artificial Christmas trees on KOMO Radio.

So does it really make sense to cut one down just to decorate our living rooms for several weeks?

If you’re on the side of nature — yes it does.

Tree boughs with ornaments.

Here’s why:

Real trees grow in the ground for several years before they are cut (a rule of thumb is about one year in age for each foot of tree height), helping mitigate climate change by absorbing CO2, and helping keep our air and water clean and providing habitat for animals.

Thirty million trees are harvested annually for Christmas, out of the 350 to 500 million growing on tree farms across the country. As each year's trees are harvested for sale, there are more than 10 times as many left standing.

An artificial Christmas tree. Used via Creative Commons Zero - CC0 © Max Pixel

A tradition of buying real trees keeps tree farms in business — and their lands covered in forest. The vast majority of Christmas trees today come from farms in the U.S. And for every tree they sell, farmers will plant one to three seedlings in its place, ensuring the sustainability of this industry.

Conversely, about 10 million artificial trees are purchased each year. 90 percent are shipped to the U.S. from China. Artificial trees are not recyclable. In fact, most are made from a kind of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is derived from petroleum.

Local Options:

The Cle Elum Kiwanis will be selling trees they collected from Conservancy land in the Central Cascades Forests. Money raised by Kiwanis goes to support youth activities in the Cle Elum region.

Christmas tree collection on Conservancy land is for nonprofit groups by permit only, not for individuals. However, the neighboring Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest sells permits for individuals and families to collect trees. Not in Central Washington? Try any of our National Forests. Check in at your nearest Ranger Station to learn more.

Have a fourth-grader in the family? Through the federal government’s Every Kid In A Park program, you can get a free permit to collect a tree on national forest land.

Members of the Cle Elum Kiwanis collect Christmas trees to sell to raise money for scholarships and other programs in the Cle Elum region. Photo © Brian Mize / TNC staff

Washington also has a wealth of cut-your-own tree farms. Find one near you.

Want to make your already green tree choice even greener?

  • Use LED lights — they’ll use as little as 10 percent of the electricity and last for years.
  • Pass up the non-recyclable tinsel and make garland out of popcorn and cranberries.
  • Keep using heirloom ornaments year after year, but if you’re still looking to fill some space on the tree, you don’t have to go the store-bought route. Try turning holiday cards or your child’s artwork into ornaments. Or go for a walk to collect pine cones or seashells and decorate with glue and glitter.
  • If you are planning to purchase ornaments, choose wooden ones over plastic. When you travel during the year, pick up a painted wood ornament from the destination you visit. Soon you’ll have a collection of ornaments that brings back memories of trips with friends and family.
  • Recycle your Christmas tree. In King County, you can find lots of options here. Or check your own local resources on the Web or in the newspaper.