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Real vs. artificial Christmas trees: which is best for the environment?

"O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches...."

And they are lovely. And they smell really great. And they look stunning in our living rooms. But is cutting real trees hurting the environment?

The answer is not so straightforward. It depends on who you buy it from and how you dispose of it and how many years you reuse it. Cutting down a tree might intuitively seem like a bad idea. Aren't we supposed to be fighting deforestation? Well, yes. But Christmas trees don't typically come from wild forests – they come from large tree farms like the one pictured above. Oregon is one of the largest producers of Christmas trees in the country, followed by New York and North Carolina. But smaller farms can be found all over the country, making cut-your-own-tree a growing family tradition.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, it takes six to seven years for a seedling to mature into a six-foot tree. This means farmers must work years ahead before they can make a profit. During this time, tree farms help clean the air and preserve farmland. They also provide income to local farmers which in turn allows them to grow other crops. And when recycled properly, a real Christmas tree is chopped up, ground down, and fed to plants and animals. Circularity at its best.

Now let's talk about artificial trees.

The industry is growing and every year there seems to be some hype about new and less toxic materials. However, as of 2020, the largest producer of artificial trees is still China and their trees are normally made of petroleum materials, including PVC (polyvinyl chloride). PVC has been linked to many health issues such as cancer. Finding a PVC free tree won't be an easy task.

Artificial trees can range anywhere from $50 dollars to $1,000. Some come pre-lit and decorated- an attractive choice for the busy household. The bottom line is that an artificial tree cannot be recycled once it no longer suits your needs. According to the American Christmas Tree Association, the average family uses an artificial tree for only six to nine years before throwing it away–which means it will remain in a landfill for centuries to come. If artificial is your final choice, selecting a high-quality tree that will last for more than 20 years is the best way of reducing your environmental impact.

The choice will ultimately come down to personal preference and what kind of tree best fits your lifestyle, but if you are concerned about the environment, a real tree gets my vote.

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