National Christmas Tree Association Says Real Trees Are "Green"

Apparently there’s some debate about whether or not it’s more eco-friendly to buy a real Christmas tree every year or a fake one once every billion years or so.

For a totally biased argument, we turn to the National Christmas Tree Association’s website, where they compare real trees to fake ones. Real trees, they say, are 100% biodegradable, PVC free, (often) grown locally, and are “carbon neutral.”

Also, they smell nice.

All in all, people are going to buy whichever they like better, but now you real tree aficionados will have a bunch of talking points to unleash upon friends who disagree with you. That’s what Christmas is all about.

Making An Eco-Friendly Choice: The Environmental Debate Settled [National Christmas Tree Association]
(Photo:Justin Russell)

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  1. seeeb says:

    let’s see… a tree grown local on a tree farm which you _know_ will get replanted vs a plastic tree shipped halfway across the planet…

  2. theblackdog says:

    Do the trees absorb enough carbon dioxide that it negates the carbon released when it’s cut down?

  3. quail says:

    Why do either? In a life overrun by stuff, why have stuff that sits in storage for months on end and that only generates hours of work to put up and take down? I know I get the Scrooge award when I suggest it but why not do a simple decoration on the dinner table and the mantle piece?

    (That said, it took me months to convince my wife to get an artificial tree. Now 10 years later I’m still trying to work it out so that we don’t even have to deal with that.)

  4. mk says:

    see this article on Grist [www.grist.org]

  5. mac-phisto says:

    i have two dwarf pines that i rescued from a neighbor who was going to replace them with some new landscape. i think i’ll throw some lights on them & call it a day.

    christmas trees are nice, but i have cats.

  6. bsankr says:

    there is a national christmas tree association?

  7. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @mac-phisto: I have cats too. We have a pleasant little three-foot pre-lighted artificial tree that we put on a small round table and decorate with Hungarian Christmas tree candy and bells. We put it on a small round table that we cover first with a sheet of aluminum foil and then with polyester fluff “snow.” The cats don’t like the foil, and if they do get up there the bells make noise and scare them. A bonus of this is that the footprint of the arrangement is small and takes up far less of the expensive floor space in our not overly large apartment.

  8. UpsetPanda says:

    Real trees are nice, but I’ve got allergies, and cleaning up sap off the floor is not my idea of a good time.

  9. Rusted says:

    Tree worship, how nice.

  10. dirtleg says:

    My wife and kids love putting up a tree, real or otherwise, but the job of taking it down and repacking all the crap that goes up on the tree and around the house always seems to fall to dad. Cleaning up the mess, dried needles etc., from a real tree is a pain in the arse, but even our last artificial tree seemed to shed a lot of plastic foliage the last couple of years it was in use. Artificial trees also seem to age rather poorly. Storage for a year manages to matt down the greenery and after a few years they look pretty sad. Real trees always dry out, no matter how fresh they may be when purchased or how much water you keep dumping into the tree stand.
    All in all, Christmas trees are one of my most un-favorite things about the Season. The only tree that I have fond memories of in my 53 Christmas’s is the old silver aluminum tree from when I was a kid. It was easy to put together, even for an eight year old. And the color wheel turning and reflecting off the glistening aluminum always has a mesmerizing affect on me. If I could find one of those today, I would consider it for our house.

    Hum-bug and all that jazz.

  11. catnapped says:

    @seeeb: Most of the live trees around here get tossed in the trash after Christmas.

  12. mac-phisto says:

    @dirtleg: i seem to recall that if you grind up a couple pills of aspirin (or rose food) & mix it in with the water, that will prevent the tree from drying out pretty well. we used to do that when i was a kid & the tress would last well into january.

    i have two favorite trees: one year we decided to cut one off our property. i picked out a white pine that looked pretty enough, but the branches were so thin that once we started hanging decorations…well…charlie brown would’ve been proud.

    another time, we had just moved into a beautiful colonial in the poconos w/ vaulted ceilings. my dad decided to go all out & trucked home a 28′ blue spruce thinking we had plenty of room for the height. we had to trim the bottom few branches, cut 18″ off the trunk (buy three new stands before we found one that accommodated the thicker trunk) & the top of the tree was still touching the ceiling! ’twas a beautiful tree.

  13. Cowboys_fan says:

    I say drop the x-mas tree altogether. I don’t recall decorating a tree having anything to do with Jesus. Sure its nice and looks good, but my way saves more $$$$!

  14. Antediluvian says:

    @bsankr: Yes, Virginia, there is a National Christmas Tree Association.

  15. Antediluvian says:

    @mac-phisto: Get a blue spruce (or any kind of spruce; white spruces are a deep green) for a tree if your cats bother the tree. Spruces have pointy needles (unlike firs, which have soft needles). Many cats don’t seem to bother the spruces. Be careful, though, because they also hurt a bit to decorate.

  16. Antediluvian says:

    @CaffeinatedSquint: Sap cleans up really easy using rubbing alcohol. Be careful, though — it works great on hands, but will sting if you have cuts, and while most clothing should be okay, test it first to see if the colors will bleed.

    I’m told you can also use gasoline. I suppose most any solvent will help, but I’d avoid gas and stick w/ the rubbing alcohol.

  17. Antediluvian says:

    @dirtleg: eBay is your friend.

    I’ve gotten several aluminum Christmas trees from eBay over the years. Don’t even try to buy now — the prices are way up because of the holiday, but you should look to get an idea of what’s out there. The taller the tree, the more money, and the more branches, the more money. Colored trees cost more than silver, and watch out for modern reproductions. The current crop of “aluminum-like” trees are actually cheap tinsel and are NOTHING like those of the 50’s and 60’s. No charm or character.

    You can also try flea markets and antique stores, but eBay is really the best spot to find all sorts of retro Christmas stuff.

    Color wheels are on there too.

  18. Antediluvian says:

    @theblackdog: There is no “release” of carbon when the tree is cut, beyond what is used for machinery and transport (I feel pretty sure it’s probably less than that used to make and transport fake trees).

    The release happens when the tree decomposes or is burned. If the tree stays in tree form, even dead, the carbon is locked up (but probably slowly being released because there will be some level of decomposition).

    The posting said real trees are carbon neutral — they don’t add any EXTRA carbon to the atmosphere that they didn’t already consume in the first place.

  19. Anne says:

    @antediluvian: So chainsaws use no power, is what you’re saying?

    Most of the ones I’ve seen use gas, and put out exhaust.

    Or is that what you mean by machinery?

  20. rachaeljean says:

    I can see buying a fake one if you live in Hawaii or some place like that. But I live in Christmas-Tree-Country, and it’s pretty much a mortal sin around here.

    As for the carbon involved in cutting one… there’s the carbon from the drive to the tree farm (about the same as driving to a big box store), and then the chain saw to cut it down. If you’re really eco-conscious, you could bring a hatchet I bet. It’s a fun way to do things. Plus you get to meet the farmers and know that your money is going to a local family rather than God-knows-what in China.

  21. tadowguy says:

    Real trees are likely to turn your face “red” and your house “black” if you let them dry out and they burn your house down.

  22. witeowl says:

    They have a point. Why do we keep worrying about renewable resources? We should keep our focus on nonrenewable resources.

    We seem to forget that paper trees and Christmas trees are specifically planted for their respective uses. They’re not harvested from forests; they’re farmed. We don’t scold people for using up all the lettuce heads, do we?

    Paper and yule trees are two items in which recycling or manufactured alternatives are arguably worse than using the original products. This may be a case of the cure being worse than the disease.

    (That said, my favorite yule tree was a little potted number [not a typical pine tree] that lived in our backyard between winters.)

  23. Antediluvian says:

    @Anne: No need to be snarky.

    No, I didn’t say that chainsaws use no power. But I also didn’t say all trees were cut down using chainsaws. My tree was cut down by hand. Most people who cut their own at farms will use hand saws. All commercial harvests will be done with power equipment. Certainly the vast majority of trees are cut with chainsaws.

    But you answered your own question. Yes, I meant harvesting equipment (including chainsaws). I’ll add pruning machines if used (most growers prune with hand tools, it’s easier and simpler, and actually faster), transporting of seedlings and harvested trees, and any other carbon-releasing items invovled along the way.

    Fake trees are made in a factory using machinery powered by something, made from petroleum products (plastics) that had to be transported, metals that had to be mined and transported, and then the finished product has to transported from far away.

    So I stand by my comment that the carbon put into raising and using a real Christmas tree is less than that put into a fake tree. I’ll go further and say that a real tree is still a better choice (carbon-wise) even compared with the “useful” “life” of a fake tree (say, 5-10 years).

    A real tree itself IS effectively carbon-neutral. A fake tree itself is not. Factor in manufacturing and transport loads, and you get a clear case that a real tree is better for the environment.

  24. Antediluvian says:

    @tadowguy: Don’t forget the episode of the Simpsons when Bart melted their fake tree into a large plastic disk and hid it in the yard under the snow. How wasteful was that? And those fumes must have been terrible!
    :-)

  25. flowergirl says:

    here in the bay area of california (gotta love california) we can go
    to a farm where the trees are grown with no chemical inputs, and they
    will show you how to cut it down in such a way that a new tree will
    grow back on the same root system. (no power saws either, it’s a stick
    with a little sawtoothed blade on the end.) highly recommend! just be
    careful, they look taller on the stump than they do in a lot. we had to
    take a good hunk off last year’s to make it fit….

  26. LipstickLibrarian says:

    @CaffeinatedSquint: Isn’t that what tree skirts are for?

    @catnapped: A few years ago I was moving in September and was amazed to see the brownest, driest Xmas tree I’d ever seen suddenly appear in the alley.

    I’m surprised the sun didn’t set it ablaze.

  27. varco says:

    Where I grew up, we always got locally-grown real trees. Sometime in January, the boy scouts came around and took the trees to be turned into mulch for the local parks. I’m pretty sure this process is a lot better for the environment than buying a plastic tree.

    That said, I couldn’t imagine buying a real tree in the desert climate where I live now.

  28. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    OK, bottom line. I can’t see paying thirty dollars or more EVERY YEAR instead of paying it ONCE.

  29. Antediluvian says:

    @speedwell: So you cook all your own meals and never eat out (at least not at the same place twice)? Only been to Disney once, because you’ve already done it? Buy a fresh pumpkin each Halloween, rather than a plastic one? Buy a Kia instead of a Toyota? Never

    Bottom line: sometimes economics is only part of the equation. Experiences (Disney), comfort (car choices), tradition (carving pumpkins), pleasure (dining out) all come into play beyond merely saving money upfront. There are lots of reasons for choosing a real Christmas tree.

  30. rikkus256 says:

    National Christmas Tree Association… lol never knew such association exist.

  31. rdm24 says:

    There is NO WAY it’s carbon neutral. Unless you are planning on transporting that tree by pack mule, maybe.

  32. Mary says:

    Since my extended in-laws make a living growing and selling Christmas trees, this is good news to me. I always suspected it wasn’t the obvious answer.

    Besides, cheap firewood. Smells really nice.

  33. Antediluvian says:

    @rdm24: No, there is a way: until the real tree is decomposed or burned, it’s actually a carbon sink. Carbon is trapped by the tree. Merely cutting it down doesn’t release the carbon (it’s not a balloon).

    It’s neutral because most trees are NOT burned, so the carbon remains locked up for a significant time.

    The tree itself is completely carbon neutral. Transporting uses carbon whether regardless of what you’re transporting – a real or fake tree. The fake trees are bad for the environment, period.

    @Anne: I think I figured out what you were trying to say. My comment above, and right here, is that there is not a release of carbon when a tree is cut. I’m not talking about the cutting machinery, the transportation, or any of that stuff. I’m talking about the tree — one second on the stump, next second it’s cut. There is no release of carbon from this action. Like I said, it’s not a balloon. Carbon doesn’t suddenly pop out of the stump like some sort of Lorax.

  34. Posthaus says:

    Regardless, considering the source I am reminded of a George Carlin joke:

    “..this is a message from the National Pancake Institute, and it says ‘$%#& Waffles.’ Something you want to keep in mind when you drop into Denny’s later this evening.”

  35. dirtleg says:

    @Antediluvian: Thanks for the info. I once told my wife about the aluminum tree we had when I was young, she said “we have one in parents basement in a box”. Needless to say it was just a cheap imitation. It was a silver plastic or mylar material. So no, not the same thing.
    Another thing I remember about our tree when I thought about it some more, when you would pull the branches out of their storage cells (a paper honeycomb deal) they would sort of sing or ring as you pulled them out. The aluminum “needles” would vibrate and create a very cool sound. Never have heard that anywhere else. For an artificial tree, it certainly made for some very real Christmas memories for me.

  36. SimonSwegles says:

    My family and I have always resolved this issue by purchasing live trees and planting them in our back yard after the season ends. Certainly not a perfect solution for those without big yards, but it makes me feel good about participating in the decoration festivities. If we did not buy live, I would not likely support the tree-decorating at all.