Sense & Centsibility Blog

Real or Plastic? Is it Worth it to Buy a Real Tree?

It's 10 degrees below zero in Minnesota, and Christmas is right around the corner! Shopping and decorating are in full swing, and every holiday season, a debate ensues.  Which is the greener choice – a real or artificial Christmas tree? Depending on your values and priorities, each option has its place. But me, I vote for real any day!

Real Trees--The Good!

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 33 million real Christmas trees are sold throughout North America each year. Of those, a whopping 93% are recycled and used for various projects rather than being dumped in a landfill when the holidays are over. Known as “treecycling,” this is the main reason many experts agree that real trees are more environmentally-friendly than the artificial variety.

Christmas trees are typically recycled into mulch that is used for landscaping, gardening, hiking trails, walkways, playground materials, and so forth. A real tree can also absorb more than a ton of CO2 during its lifetime. More than 350 million Christmas trees grow at any given time across America. As you can imagine, that number of trees is capturing huge amounts of CO2, helping to clean our air.

Since most Christmas trees are grown on tree farms, they are a renewable and sustainable crop, and tree farms help to protect soil and wildlife habitat. This has also helped to maintain many family farms that would otherwise have been converted to different land uses.

Another major consideration is the Christmas tree industry provides jobs for more than 100,000 Americans, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA). And who can resist the fresh pine scent of a real Christmas tree?

Real Trees--The Bad!

Since real Christmas trees are farmed as agricultural products, many chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers may be applied during each tree’s lifetime. And depending where you live, if Christmas trees don’t grow in your climate, they may have traveled hundreds of miles to reach your favorite tree lot, increasing the environmental impact. If you like the idea of a real Christmas tree but want to further reduce the carbon footprint, look into local tree farms and organic options that don’t use chemicals during the growing process.

Artificial Trees--The Good!

The financial cost of an artificial tree is often cited as a reason they’re a better choice – you buy a fake tree once rather than spending $40 every year for a real tree. Of course, this assumes you keep your artificial tree for several years instead of buying a better model. This also assumes you store it carefully enough so you don’t have to replace it when the wires bend beyond recognition. People also like the convenience of artificial trees because they don’t need watering, don’t drop needles and sap all over the floor, and don’t require transportation from a tree farm to your home.

Artificial Trees--The Bad!

Unfortunately, artificial trees are typically made with metal and PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a non-biodegradable, petroleum-derived plastic (doesn’t that sound festive?). This means you can’t recycle them, and when you dispose of them, they will sit in landfills for centuries because they don’t break down. Even worse, many older varieties may contain lead, which has been used to stabilize the manufacturing process. Exposure to lead is particularly toxic to children. Lead exposure or poisoning may lead to many behavioral and developmental problems, among other serious health concerns. The NCTA estimates that 85% of artificial trees are imported from China. Shipping to North America, and then to your favorite retail store requires travel of thousands of miles, adding to the overall negative impact of artificial trees. If you still want to buy an artificial tree, look for those that are manufactured here in the US. Not only will it require far less shipping, there is much less chance it will contain toxins like lead. You will also help to protect America’s manufacturing jobs with that choice.

How and Where to Recycle Your Christmas Tree

Artificial trees typically cannot be recycled, so once you pack it up for the year your work is done. But real trees can be donated. Many cities and counties have recycling service to put your old Christmas tree to new life as a wildlife sanctuary, on a sand dune to protect the beach, as mulch or as a bird feeder. Click HERE to see local recycling options.

Have questions about managing your finances and spending during the holiday season? Call LSS Financial Counseling at 888.577.2227 or visit out website. We are here to help you find financial success this holiday season.

Author Barb Miller is a financial counselor and bankruptcy specialist at LSS Financial Counseling.