Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees: Which Is the Greener Choice?

By Karen Zraick | The New York Times |

It’s the centerpiece of the biggest holiday of the year for many American families: the Christmas tree, the focal point for parties and presents, replete with favorite ornaments and lights.

Some cherish the scent of a real tree and the tradition of bringing it home, while others prefer the tidier and easier option of the plastic variety.

But which is better for the environment? Here’s a look at some of the central claims — and the common misconceptions — in that debate.

Don’t feel bad about cutting down a tree for the holiday. Christmas trees are crops grown on farms, like lettuce or corn. They are not cut down from wild forests on a large scale, said Bert Cregg, an expert in Christmas tree production and forestry at Michigan State University.

A five- or six-foot tree takes just under a decade to grow, and once it’s cut down, the farmer will generally plant at least one in its place. The trees provide many benefits to the environment as they grow, cleaning the air and providing watersheds and habitats for wildlife. They grow best on rolling hills that are often unsuitable for other crops and, of course, they are biodegradable.

Oregon is the country’s biggest grower, followed by North Carolina. Many other states also have sizable Christmas tree farms, which preserve open land from development by their very existence.

Big growers tend to dominate in Oregon, like Holiday Tree Farms, which uses helicopters to harvest about a million trees annually, for sale at big box stores and other locations.

In western North Carolina, the farms tend to be smaller, like the one owned by Larry Smith, who has been growing trees for more than 40 years.

His business, Mountain Top Fraser Fir, was chosen to supply this year’s White House Christmas tree, a 19-foot specimen on display in the Blue Room.

“Tell the kids and grandkids to keep buying real trees so we keep the local economy strong and we don’t have to sell the land to the rich people from New York City to make condos,” Mr. Smith said.

Prices for real trees have reached record highs over the last few years because farmers planted fewer trees during the 2008 recession. That may have driven some families to make the leap to a manufactured one. The average price was $75 for a real tree last year, while the average price for an artificial tree — which can be reused — was $107, according to a Nielsen/Harris poll conducted on behalf of the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents sellers of real trees.

Read more at The New York Times.