The Christmas Tree Conundrum: Real or Fake?


A mountain side Christmas tree farm in North Carolina.

Christmas tree lovers rejoice! We come bearing good news for all who have been feeling guilty for buying a cut tree as the centerpiece of the holidays; real trees are not only a better smelling alternative to fake Christmas trees, but they create local jobs, provide oxygen and are a recyclable, sustainable resource.

Besides, imagine singing “O Tannenbaum” around a plastic Douglas Fir…

O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me
How often has the Christmas tree
Afforded me the greatest glee!

…it just doesn’t spread the same holiday cheer and give the same joyful feeling.

If you aren’t convinced, here are some of the facts about both kinds of trees:

  • There are 350 million Christmas trees growing on 350,000 acres of land in the US right now. The 15,000 tree farms that grow the Christmas trees can be found in all 50 states (yes, even Hawaii) and employ about 100,000 people in full and part-time positions.
  • Oregon and North Carolina are the leading tree producing states.
  • One acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen to satisfy the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people.
  • In addition to producing oxygen, tree farms are excellent at sequestering carbon dioxide, meaning they remove carbon from the atmosphere and deposit it in the trees and the dirt.
  • Young trees sequester the most carbon during their early growth spurts, but trees continue to sequester their entire lives. Because new seedlings are planted around cut stumps (instead of the ground being tilled between harvests) the carbon deposited in the roots and soil stays put, making tree farm dirt incredibly an incredibly valuable resource for combating climate change.
  • According to the U.S. Commerce Department, 80% of fake Christmas trees are manufactured in China and have to be shipped in on cargo vessel. These trees are made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which is a form of non-renewable, petroleum derived plastic, which means that their final resting place has to be in a landfill.
  • Because of the energy intensive manufacturing process, a fake trees must be used for 20 years before it can match the small carbon footprint that farming and transporting one real tree makes.
  • Buying a tree direct from a local farmer (like going to a cut your own tree farm) contributes to local economies and supports independent, often family owned businesses. (You can find the tree farm nearest you here.) Trees from major retailers sometimes report the state of origin of the tree, so you can still know and choose where your store-bought tree comes from.

The evidence seems compelling. Live is best! But if you buy a live tree and come January 1st, you put the tree on the curb to be thrown out, you are undoing all your good work. A live tree’s best quality is that it is a natural resource that can be recycled.christmas_tree_recycling

A growing number of cities have pickup programs via public works to turn trees into mulch to be used in municipal parks or gardens. Some even mulch the trees and make it available for the donors to pickup again for personal use.

There are many other really interesting recycling projects going on that up-cycle Christmas trees. Coastal communities, like Jefferson, Louisiana use trees in marshes to protect the fragile ecosystem from waves and erosion.

Holidays-Recycling Christmas Trees

Jefferson residents use trees in “cribs” to protect marshlands.

Others beach cities, especially in New Jersey and New York, are using Christmas trees to jump-start sand dunes that were wiped away by violent storms. On the other side of the country, Washington fisherman sink the trees in streams and bays to give fish like trout habitat to hide away in.


Trees act as sand dune building blocks in Seaside Park, NJ after Hurricane Sandy.

Many zoos and wildlife rehab centers ask for people to donate Christmas trees to be used as enrichment toys and a different, piney tasting treat for their residents. Big cats, like lions and tigers, love to play with the trees, where other animals like elephants actually love the taste of the bark. (You can check out our book “Animal Helpers: Wildlife Rehabilitators”  for more information on how enrichment activities keep rescue animals happy and healthy!)


Zuri the lion plays with a donated tree at the Linton Zoo in the UK.


Buttontown Zoo keepers in Newbedford, MA hide food in recycled trees to give curious animals, like this otter, a fun afternoon activity.


This  elephant at the Berlin Zoo gets a tasty treat during the annual “The Feeding of the Christmas Trees” event.

Because each area conducts their own recycling programs, you’ll have to do some digging to find out what is available and best suits your family best in your town. Does your city have a really cool way to reuse Christmas trees that we don’t know about? Tell us in the comments!

Until recycling time comes…enjoy that real Christmas tree smell!


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