Real tree or artificial tree?

Lock experts, holiday revelers, and environmentalists in a room to debate this topic, and they might not come out until next Christmas.

It’s no small issue. According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), the Christmas tree industry employs more than 100,000 Americans.

Approximately 33 million real Christmas trees are sold in North America each year, with about 93 percent of them recycled through more than 4,000 recycling programs.

“All of the environmental groups and all of the scientists say you should use a real tree. The debate is over,” maintains Rick Dungey, a spokesperson for NCTA, which advocates for farm-grown trees. “The only people still talking about it are the people trying to sell fake trees.”

But a 2014 Nielsen survey, published by the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), indicated that 81 percent of American households with Christmas trees celebrate with an artificial tree. Can 81 percent of American households be wrong?

“It makes sense to choose the tradition that suits your needs while also considering the best environmental practices,” says Kathryn Fernholz, executive director of Dovetail Partners, a Minneapolis-based environmental group. “If you choose a real tree, you can get to know your local grower and recycle your tree at the end of the holiday season. If you choose an artificial tree, make sure to reuse it for as many years as possible.”

“Truth is, the impact on the environment is relatively negligible,” says Timothy Taylor, blogging for the Conversable Economist. “In the context of many other holiday and everyday activities, the environmental effects of the tree are small. . . . the environment effect of the ornaments on the trees may be as large or greater than the effect of the tree itself. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows . . . spending on ornaments is something like six times as high as spending on trees.”

According to one Christmas tree study, 26.3 million real trees were purchased in 2014 (down from a peak of 33.02 in 2013), with respondents spending an average of $39.50 per tree. Artificial tree sales were 13.9 million (up from 8.2 million in 2010) at an average of $63.60 per tree. Of real trees sold, 85 percent were pre-cut and 15 percent were selected and cut by the buyer.

Back in 2008, ACTA conducted a study that concluded that an artificial, pre-lit tree at a price of $149 would cost the consumer 70 percent less over a ten-year period than a similar-sized (seven-foot) fresh tree, costing an average of $41 at the time. But times and tastes have changed. One 12-foot pre-lit model, available from Home Depot this fall, checked in at $1,499.

In the end, your choice of Christmas tree will probably come down to personal preference. But here are some pros and cons to consider:

Real Tree

Pros

  • Most trees are sustainably farmed, so forests, in general, are not being cleared.
  • The smell: Nothing matches the fragrance of real pine.
  • Family tradition: Some relish the process of selecting and bringing home a fresh tree each year.
  • Some communities will pick up Christmas trees and recycle them into mulch.
  • The sale of real trees benefits tree producers and some charitable organizations.

Cons

  • Safety: Fresh trees, when not carefully adorned or disposed of, can present a fire hazard (although 28 percent of fires involve fake trees).
  • Many real trees are grown with the considerable use of pesticides.
  • It’s generally not practical to purchase a live tree with the intent to replant it (although some services provide live, potted trees and do replant them).
  • It’s not environmentally friendly to cut down evergreens, which help purify groundwater, produce oxygen, and reduce greenhouse gasses by absorbing carbon dioxide.
  • In some parts of the country, fresh trees are not readily available and could require trucking from hundreds of miles away.
  • Allergies might be a factor: Along with the pine smell can come nearly ten times the amount of mold normally found indoors, says ACTA. (Some refute the data.)

Artificial Tree

Pros

  • Cost: Displayed for enough years, an artificial tree could cost substantially less than a fresh tree.
  • Convenience: There’s no tying it to the roof of your car, dragging it down three flights of stairs, watering it, or sweeping up pine needles.
  • Safety: With reasonable precautions (never place near an open flame) artificial trees don’t pose as much of a fire hazard as real trees.
  • They’re available in your choice of color:  Take your pick from green, white, blue, or even pink.

Cons

  • Studies say the typical artificial tree is replaced after seven to ten years (ACTA says the typical artificial tree is displayed for 11 years).
  • According to NCTA, about 85 percent of artificial trees sold in the U.S. are imported from China—little help to the local economy.
  • Many artificial trees are made of metals and PVC plastic, which may contain lead. Those plastics are not recyclable or biodegradable.

Whichever type of tree you choose, the National Fire Protection Association offers common-sense tips about Christmas tree safety. And, Learning Liftoff offers a multitude of ideas to help your family savor the season, however you choose to celebrate it.

Real tree, fake tree, or both? Which way do you lean and why? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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