Choosing this year’s Christmas tree.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
O how I hate cleaning up after you . . .

Every year in mid-December I have a little debate with myself. Do I buy a real Christmas tree, knowing all the documented risks of installing one in the home? Do I want the hassle of cleaning pine needles off my floors for the next several months (because they never seem to go away completely)? Do I want to spend scores of tense minutes with my husband, re-evaluating our mutual understanding of “straight?” Or do I buck up for a nice fake one, saving trees for years to come, and eliminating the clean-up question altogether?

And then I go out and buy a real one. Because there’s nothing quite like the scent of fresh fir in the living room on Christmas Eve, and no room spray – artificial or natural – really can replace that.

What do the environmental expert think? Is it worse to sacrifice a live tree in order to decorate my house for a few weeks at most? Or to welcome another plastic wonder into the world?

While there are pros and cons on both sides of the argument, environmental experts tend to agree that a real tree is the best option. While fake trees are reused year after year, and thus don’t generate anywhere near as much waste, they are made with PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which is high on the list of the most environmentally-offensive, non-renewable plastics. All sorts of cancer-causing toxins are generated in the production of PVC. Since most of the trees sold in North America are manufactured in China where labor standards are lax, there’s a really good chance that any fake tree has essentially polluted a neighborhood near a factory and jeopardized the health of whoever assembled it.

Furthermore, due to the inclusion of lead (for malleability), that same fake tree may shed toxin-laced dust in your home. And since the average family only keeps a fake tree for 6-9 years, it eventually ends up in the landfill, where it will not biodegrade, further contaminating soils and water supplies. Suddenly I’m not feeling so jolly . . .

But what about a real tree? Isn’t it wasteful – not to mention bad for the earth — to harvest a perfectly-good tree, only to stand it in the living room for a month and then toss it in the landfill? And don’t they use pesticides at most Christmas tree farms? Aren’t those pollutants/health hazards as well?

Well yes. But a real Christmas tree is still a better choice. While they grow – seven years is the average life span before harvest — these trees support life on earth by absorbing carbon dioxide and other gases and emitting fresh oxygen. As they are often established on land that won’t support other types of agriculture, Christmas tree farms help to maintain open space while stabilizing the soil, protecting water supplies, and provide habitat for wildlife. To ensure constant supply, farmers plant 1-3 seedlings for every tree they harvest, so the crop is consistently being renewed. And more and more farmers are choosing more sustainable methods, where pesticides are used only sparingly. These tree farms – there are 15,000 in the United States alone – also provide jobs (100,00 per year).

Plus, real Christmas trees can be reused — stabilizing beaches is one application; recycled – where they are chipped and converted to mulch; or composted.

To eliminate the waste factor entirely, you can purchase a live tree from a local grower – one with its roots intact — that can be replanted in your yard after the holidays. But this too presents challenges. You can only keep it indoors for a week, or else it might come out of dormancy and thus not survive once you return it to the outdoors. And even if you follow all the guidelines to the letter, you might find (as I have) that the tree still doesn’t survive. Which somehow feels even worse . . . No one wants to ring in the New Year lamenting, “I killed our Christmas tree.”

So here’s what I think.

If you don’t mind not having a Christmas tree indoors, consider decorating one in your yard with weatherproof lights and ornaments – no risk, no waste. If you’re up to the challenge of caring for a live tree, go that route. If your only options are real vs. fake, choose real, buy locally grown, and be sure to dispose of it responsibly when the holidays have passed.

by Kezia Bacon-Bernstein
December 2010

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 13 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit