The real tree vs. artificial tree debate is one near and dear to my heart for many reasons. As the daughter of Christmas tree farmers, and a forester by trade, I most definitely have strong opinions. Yes, you guessed it… I am 100% in support of people buying a real tree, but don’t worry I will examine this topic objectively. Together lets review our tree options and learn a little bit about the history of this tradition.
There are many claims to the true origin of the tradition of bringing a tree into ones home. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. What we think of as the “Christmas tree” originated during the Renaissance period of early modern Germany over four hundred years ago.
From the 16th century to the 19th century, (250+ years) everyone who had a Christmas tree harvested a real tree from the forest. It wasn’t until 1880 (sounds like a long time ago, but in comparison it isn’t really that long ago) that the first artificial trees were created. The first artificial tree was made out of wire and dyed goose feathers and was created in Germany in response to growing deforestation issues. The feather tree became more and more popular until it finally made its way to American department stores in the 1920s. In 1930, the U.S.-based Addis Brush Company, a toilet brush manufacturer, created the first artificial Christmas tree made from dyed animal hair brush bristles. In the 1950s a new aluminum Christmas tree was invented and continued to be manufactured into the 1970s. Aluminum trees grew in popularity because the branches were stronger and could hold up heavy ornaments. Currently, most artificial Christmas trees are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and are manufactured, almost exclusively, in China and imported into the United States. PVC is an affordable material that can be created to look very realistic, but despite being made from plastic most artificial trees are not recyclable or biodegradable. Most artificial trees are fire resistant and assumed to be safer in terms of fire hazard. (Mostly because people forget to water their real trees, which leads them to dry out)
There are more than 20,000 North American Christmas tree growers, 95 percent of the trees they produce are sold or shipped directly from the farms. Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, and Michigan are the leading producers of Christmas trees in America, but Christmas trees are grown in all 50 U.S. states including Alaska and Hawaii. The use of natural Christmas trees continues to decline, in part, due to the continued rise in popularity of artificial trees. Many tree farmers have been driven out of business due to this decline.
Real trees are carbon-neutral, meaning they emit no more carbon dioxide by being cut down and disposed of than they absorb while growing. However, emissions do accumulate and occur in production and transportation of the tree. (Burning gasoline in farm equipment) Similarly, artificial tree production and transportation emits green house gases. An independent life-cycle assessment study, conducted by a firm of experts in sustainable development, states that a natural tree will generate 3.1 kg (6.8 lb) of greenhouse gases every year (based on purchasing 5 km (3.1 miles) from home) whereas the artificial tree will produce 48.3 kg (106 lb) over its lifetime. Meaning a person would have to use the same artificial Christmas tree for at least 20 years to leave an environmental footprint as small as the natural Christmas tree. So the take away message is, use your fake tree for as long as you can.
There are many factors in tree selection and I am aware that there are certain allergies and illnesses that prohibit some people from having a real tree in their home. That is understandable and is exactly why artificial trees will always serve a purpose, because no one should be denied the joys of Christmas. but hopefully this information helps to shed light on the truths and misconceptions on Christmas trees.