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Real Versus Fake: Which Christmas Tree is Healthier?
There’s no doubt about it: Christmas wouldn’t be the same without a decorated tree standing tall in the home (and over presents). In fact, Americans buy huge numbers of the holiday evergreens each year — some of ‘em fake and some of ‘em the real live deal. But it turns out the choice of real versus fake might involve more thought than whether or not we feel like vacuuming up loose needles. Real and not-so-real trees have different health implications for people and the planet — so which is better?
WHICH TREE IS GREENEST? — THE NEED-TO-KNOW
Christmas trees are a billion-dollar market, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (yup, a real thing). In 2011, a poll found that people in the U.S. purchased more than 30 million real trees and 9.5 million fake ones. Short of not buying a tree at all (unlikely), evidence is mounting that the best way to minimize environmental impact (and potential health risks) is to purchase a real live tree.
It’s easy to assume fake trees are the more eco-friendly choice, because (let’s face it) cutting down a live tree hardly seems like an act of environmental preservation. But according to the NCTA, artificial trees are made up of plastics that don’t biodegrade (meaning any fake tree that ends up in a landfill will stay there for, well, ever.) In addition, the process of making fake trees is pretty energy-intensive, meaning that a fake tree would have to be used for two decades before it could match the carbon footprint of a farmed tree (that’s the amount of carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels). Though one study did find that artificial trees are a better choice environmentally (on the grounds that they have a smaller transportation footprint than real trees because real-tree purchasers have to drive to pick one up each year), the conclusions have been accused of being misleading.
Not only are fake trees fairly damaging to the environment, but they might also pose a risk to human health. Fake trees may contain metal toxins like lead, the exposure to which may cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and other organs, even in small doses . In short, fake trees generally aren’t a great choice for planetary and human health.
In contrast, spending a little cash-money on a real tree can be good for human health, local communities, and the planet. Real trees contribute to local state economies (Christmas tree farms are in business in all 50 states), and choosing a locally grown tree can actually conserve energy (no transporting a tree over state lines or overseas). Another bonus: Real trees are biodegradable, which means they can be recycled or composted and used to fertilize new generations of trees.
Real trees can also benefit human health. Trees help clean the air while they’re grown (remember all that photosynthesis stuff we learned in grade school?). And one acre of the Christmas staple can produce the daily oxygen requirements for 18 people. Exposure to real greenery can also be pretty therapeutic, as it’s been linked to reduced stress and improvements in overall wellbeing. And if all this isn’t enough reason to buy the authentic version, consider this: Real trees smell waaay better.
Real-tree buyers can choose to get extra green by going organic. Farmers who grow organic trees avoid using harmful pesticides and use practices that don’t deplete the soil, so trees can be grown for years to come. Organic options are slim, but check out this list to see if there’s an eco-minded tree farm near you. And for the truly dedicated earth-friendly Christmas tree shopper, there’s another option on the rise: These days, all the cool kids are renting trees. After a stint shading presents and displaying lovely ornaments, rented trees are picked up and replanted so they can live out long, flourishing lives.
Caring for a Real Tree — Your Action Plan
So you’ve decided to buy a real tree. Now, follow these tips to maximize its longevity.
- If the tree was freshly cut, place it in water as soon as possible, even if it won’t be decorated right away. If it’s been over six hours since the tree’s been cut and it hasn’t gotten any water to wet its whistle, make a fresh cut at the base before setting it up in a tree stand.
- To maintain a tree’s freshness (and avoid so many dried up needles on the living room floor), pour water into the base daily. Fill it up enough that the water level stays above the bottom of the trunk of the tree. Trees are thirsty suckers — they can slurp up a quart of water per inch of the tree’s base diameter every day. If the base dries up, sap can run out and seal it off, making it harder for water to get in.
- Fresh, clean water does the trick. No need for any fancy nutrient packets.
- Keep the tree away from heat sources. A fireplace or radiator can speed up evaporation and moisture loss, not to mention increase the risk of fire.
- Don’t toss a tree to the curb once it’s past its prime. Many counties have free drop-off recycling centers or tree mulching programs. Find a recycling program at earth911 or start a recycling (or rather, treecycling!) program in your area by contacting the National Christmas Tree Association.
Christmas trees are one of America’s most traditional purchases come December. Both for your family’s health and for good ole Mama Earth, feel better about buying the real thing.
Convinced? What’s your tree tradition? Let us know in the comment section below, or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.
This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Santa Claus and Jack Frost.
- Very low lead exposures and children's neurodevelopment. Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts. Bellinger, D.C. Current Opinion in Pediatrics, 2008 Apr;20(2):172-7.⤴
Comments Leave a comment
The only issue with this? The numbers of people with allergies is growing - and pine tar/pitch and needles are high triggers of these reactions. That is the reason we had to go to 'fake'. We have had the same tree for over a decade now - and everyone gets to enjoy the holidays.
@txa1265 Totally true! It's possible that christmas trees can be home to microscopic mold spores that may trigger allergy symptoms (like sneezing, watery eyes and an itchy nose). Artificial trees can also trigger allergic reactions, especially if they've been stored improperly and full of dust. Some of the materials used to make artificial trees might cause irritation, too. Check out more info on the topic here: http://www.acaai.org/allergist/news/New/Pages/avoiding-holiday-asthma-al.... But if a not-so-real tree allows the family to enjoy the holidays even more, than it makes perfect sense to have one!
Absolutely some people store things in places that harbor molds and dust and wonder why they react!
My wife was really pro-real tree until it was just undeniable that they were making her and our younger son sick every year. We miss the feel and smell (and hate the added plastic) ... but like you say, it is a trade-off.
Great post, thanks for the info!
The issue I take with the article, is the very last part.
Once trees are cut their vascular systems are compromised and transpiration no longer works, tracheids quickly become clogged with either air bubbles, soil or oxygenated sap etc. adding water may allow turgor pressure to force water up the stem1-3 feet, no more. The only thing adding water does is increase the relative humidity in the air around the tree, the best thing you can do to keep a natural tree longer is run a humidifier near the tree to keep the relative humidity high, and slow the rate of transpiration down in the tree, once the tree is cut, that is the water it will have in its needles. All you can do is slow the rate of water loss.
Where I live (Brazil) we don't do that, chopping trees every year. The people I know that use real trees have them around in vases, or in the garden, or back yard, permanently. At home we use things we have around (recycled items) to build a new tree every year. What is trending right now is using the bottom of plastic bottles, but we had them made of old CDs and several other materials. Some times we just put the ornaments on some random real plant (in vases). Once my husband made a wood basic tree from an old drawer and everyone else painted and added stuff. The tree around here is ready since the beginning of december, and stays until january 6th. After that we see what can be kept to be used again next year and what is already too old. So, we don't really have the option you are suggesting, it's impossible to find these trees here, but we really love these family moments of creating our own tree, having different ideas. I never though about how good or bad that was to the environment, but even if it's too bad, it would be really hard to change it.