Time to pick a Christmas tree, but real or fake? Environmentalists actually say real, if you can

  • George White IV walks through the Christmas trees on sale Tuesday at the Country Bumpkin garden center in Mundelein. The trees release carbon into the atmosphere once they're cut, which is bad, but enough new ones are growing in tree farms to more than offset them.

      George White IV walks through the Christmas trees on sale Tuesday at the Country Bumpkin garden center in Mundelein. The trees release carbon into the atmosphere once they're cut, which is bad, but enough new ones are growing in tree farms to more than offset them. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • An artificial holiday tree, like this one seen through the window of the Mount Prospect home of Dan and Kari Schake, is not too bad of an environmental option -- if you keep it for many years.

      An artificial holiday tree, like this one seen through the window of the Mount Prospect home of Dan and Kari Schake, is not too bad of an environmental option -- if you keep it for many years. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • George White IV puts a fresh cut on a tree Tuesday at the Country Bumpkin garden center in Mundelein. A fresh cut is essential to the tree's ability to absorb water at home.

      George White IV puts a fresh cut on a tree Tuesday at the Country Bumpkin garden center in Mundelein. A fresh cut is essential to the tree's ability to absorb water at home. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Artificial holiday trees, like this one in Dan and Kari Schake's Mount Prospect home, can't be recycled, so it's best to take care of them over many years to keep them out of landfills.

      Artificial holiday trees, like this one in Dan and Kari Schake's Mount Prospect home, can't be recycled, so it's best to take care of them over many years to keep them out of landfills. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
BY JENNY WHIDDEN
jwhidden@dailyherald.com
Updated 11/30/2022 12:27 PM

The holidays are just around the corner, and for those who celebrate Christmas, it's almost time to pick up an evergreen tree. But will it be real or fake?

While debates between the two options often focus on cost, convenience and tradition, environmental groups are encouraging people to consider also which is better for the planet.

 

The answer is complicated, but environmentalists say locally sourced, real trees are the greenest choice.

That's because despite the reusability of fake trees, they're made from PVC plastic, which is made from the fossil fuel petroleum. Both the production and shipment of these trees, typically from overseas, add up to a pretty hefty carbon footprint when compared to real evergreens.

"We're always going to vote for real trees here at the Morton Arboretum," said Julie Janoski, the plant clinic manager at the Arboretum.

Despite the millions of Christmas trees cut down each year, Janoski said, tree farms help store carbon and provide habitat while they grow.

"Even though they're cutting them down at a certain point, it does take six or seven or eight years to grow a decent-sized Christmas tree, and all during that time, those plants are functioning in the ecosystem," she said.

Though 25 million to 30 million Christmas trees are cut down in the U.S. each year, there are about 350 million trees simultaneously growing, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

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When a Christmas tree eventually decomposes, the carbon it had been storing in its leaves and branches gets released. But for each tree cut down, new ones are planted, mimicking the cycle of a real forest, said Andy Finton, a forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy.

"Christmas tree farmers plant new trees sometimes at the rate of two to three trees planted for every tree cut," Finton said.

Tree farms remain very homogenous, however, and don't function exactly like a natural forest would with a diversity of species.

Finton said there's a range of how different tree farms are managed, from organic practices to more commercial ones such as using insecticides, that affects how environmentally friendly they are.

That's why Finton recommends choosing a local tree farm, where you can talk with the farmer to learn more about how your tree was raised.

"If they're growing kind of nestled in among other forests, a lot of birds, deer and small mammals will spend time in the dense forest but then come out to feed in more open areas, where there's more insects or more grasses growing around, so I think (tree farms) can be part of the natural environment," Finton said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Real trees also can be chipped down and reused as mulch, while their faux counterparts can't be recycled due to the type of plastic from which they're made. Unless they're donated and find second homes, the end of life for a fake tree typically looks like getting tossed in the landfill.

Still, real trees aren't accessible to everyone. They're big, heavy and come with an annual price tag.

For those who prefer fake trees, Janoski encourages keeping it for as long as possible to help offset their emissions.

"I​f you're going to buy a fake tree, make sure that you love it, that you're going to keep it. I've heard everything from six years to 20 years in terms of where it balanced out," she said.

"If people want a fake tree, that's OK. They just need to recognize that this is something that they need to take good care of and keep for a really long time in order to balance the environmental scales."

• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work, click here to make a tax-deductible donation.

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