Whether you like a fresh, piney evergreen or prefer traveling only as far as your attic when it comes to decorating for Christmas, a tree is a must-have for the holidays. But the answer to the question of which version is "better" really lies in how real and fake trees each treat the environment.
The (it's a thing!) conducted a comprehensive tree life cycle assessment, and we got the dirt.
The Case for Real Trees
Chopping down the real thing isn't as harmful as you might think. Producing an artificial tree takes about eight times the energy of growing a live one. That said, skip the gas-guzzling trip to some wooded wonderland and buy local. When it's time to toss it, compost the tree or ask your town's waste authority for eco-friendly disposal options.
How to shop for one: When hunting for your live tree, ACTA suggests inspecting trees for broken or weak branches, and avoiding any that have been baled up for very long (they might be damaged inside their wrapping). Keep an eye out for insects and excessive dirt, too. Finally, don't forget to measure your ceiling height, your doorway, and the tree before you buy it; humans just aren't great at eye-balling size.
The Case for Fake Trees
An artificial tree can have less of an environmental impact, but there's a contingency clause: You have to keep it for a minimum of two years — ideally up to nine —the ACTA study reports. Gotta toss it sooner? Please avoid the landfill and donate gently used trees to the Salvation Army, Goodwill, or another charity instead.
How to shop for one: Since it's best to keep these trees for a few years (if not much longer), ACTA recommends that consumers consider them to be investments. Higher quality trees have branches that more closely resemble the real thing. If you can see the interior pole through branches, it might not be the best choice. Look for an option with a strong stand that won't tip over under the weight of ornaments, and hinged branches for easy set-up and storage.
The Bottom Line
You shouldn't feel bad about making either choice — the environmental impact of both is quite small when compared to other daily activities, like driving a car. Since real Christmas trees are grown specifically for the holidays, there's no threat of deforestation. And, the longer you keep an artificial tree, the less impact there is on the environment.