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A 'Greener' Christmas Tree

Which type of Christmas tree is friendlier to the environment: a real tree or an artificial tree? There is no clear answer. It depends on how you use the tree, including after Christmas.

Owl in tree
Christmas tree farms provide habitat for wildlife.

Which type of Christmas tree is friendlier to the environment: a real tree or an artificial tree?

There is no clear answer. It depends on how you use the tree, including after Christmas. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of each type.

Real Trees

Don’t feel guilty about having a tree cut down for the holidays. The production of Christmas trees has positive impacts on the environment.    

Christmas trees are usually grown on land that is not suitable for other crops. These trees conserve the air, water and soil on the land. Trees provide habitat for wildlife. For every tree harvested, one or more trees are planted in its place. A real Christmas tree is a RENEWABLE resource.

Another key point: Real trees may be RECYCLED after they are used.

Christmas tree farms have negative impacts on the environment, too. Pesticides may be pollutants. The fuel used to grow and transport Christmas trees create greenhouse gas emissions. 

These harmful gas emissions are partially offset by Christmas trees removing and storing carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. You can further reduce emissions created by the transportation of the tree if you buy a locally grown tree. 

Artificial Trees

The greatest benefit of an artificial tree is that it can be REUSED. The energy used to make one artificial tree has been reported to be roughly equal to the energy it takes to grow six real trees. Using this as a guide, if you use your artificial tree for more than six years, you may be saving energy.

On the negative side, the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride and metal generates greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. The fuel used in the shipping of trees from China is another negative impact, although ocean shipping is relatively efficient.

Most artificial trees are not recyclable and end up in local landfills.

Recycle or Reuse Your Tree!

Surprisingly, the way a tree is cared for AFTER Christmas makes a HUGE difference in its impact on the environment.  

For real trees, the best option is to grind them and use them for mulch. This mulch will return organic matter to the soil and build soil carbon. If this recycling service is not provided by your community, the trees can be chipped and used in a compost pile or set outside to provide habitat for birds.

Do not burn the tree. This will return all of its carbon immediately back to the atmosphere.

The most harmful way of disposing a real tree is to put it into a landfill. Materials buried in landfills will break down into methane, which is a greenhouse gas more harmful than carbon dioxide.

For artificial trees, the key to reducing its impact on the environment is to use the tree as many times as possible. If you plan on replacing the tree, consider donating it before you dispose of it.

In the end, both types of Christmas trees are okay. Studies have shown the impacts of Christmas trees on the environment are negligible in comparison to other activities related to the holiday season such as traveling and shopping.

Enjoy your Christmas tree and enjoy the holidays!

Written by , Extension Horticulturist, North Dakota State University. The photo was made available under a Creative Commons license specified by the photographer: Mario Nonaka.  


American Christmas Tree Association. 2010. Are real or artificial Christmas trees more environmentally friendly? https://www.christmastreeassociation.org/real-artificial-christmas-tree-environment/. Accessed November 2020.

Cregg, Bert. 2018. Are artificial Christmas trees better for the environment than real ones? It depends. Published in Discover Magazine. https://www.discovermagazine.com/environment/are-artificial-christmas-trees-better-for-the-environment-than-real-ones-it-depends. Accessed November 2020.



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