Plastic vs. pine: The greener Christmas tree debate

Feature image photo credit: Arun Kuchibhotla.

Are artificial trees actually more sustainable than real ones? For years, consumers have chosen plastic over pine for more eco-friendly Christmas holiday décor. However, a report from Carbon Trust showed that an artificial tree needs to be used for 10 Christmases for it to have a lower carbon footprint than its competition, the real tree.

Amid growing concerns about sustainability, and with more and more people examining how they make their purchasing decisions, many are beginning to ask how they can make their holiday a little greener.

Buy local

What’s one of the greenest real trees you can buy? One that’s bought locally and then recycled. Just by shopping nearby, you can minimize the CO2 generated by driving to and from a forest some distance away from your home. That means that those cut tree lots that pop up near schools or grocery stores represent an opportunity to lower your carbon footprint.

After the holiday season, instead of lugging your tree to the curb, recycle it. The beauty of a real Christmas tree is that it can be easily reused or recycled for mulch, soil erosion barriers, bird feeders and more. Every community has its own procedures, but, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, you have a few options in most places.

Reuse, recycle

  • Yard waste—Cut the tree to fit loosely in your yard waste container.
  • Tree recycling or mulching programs—Check in with your local department of public works for information. They can chip and shred the trees and make mulch available for public playgrounds or gardens.
  • Nonprofit pick-up—Call for an appointment to have a nonprofit organization pick up your tree. Also, some Boy Scout troops offer a pickup service for a small donation.

Buy live and replant

Even better than a recyclable tree is a tree you don’t need to discard at all. DIYers and gardeners may be interested in buying a living pine tree with bulb and roots intact, so it can be replanted after the holiday is over, instead of being tossed curbside. When you buy a live tree, you can let it grow it outside and enjoy it over the years. For this type of Christmas tree, This Old House recommends buying earlier in the season and only bringing it inside the house for a week or so leading up to the holiday.

See more tips on trees and sustainable planting