Ho, Ho, Horticulture: Is Your Fake Christmas Tree Environmentally Friendly?

Fifteen million Christmas trees end up in the trash every year, but going artificial may not be the answer to your holiday blues.

This time of year, many of us are partaking in the annual tradition of either putting up a real or fake Christmas tree in our home.

According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, Americans discard an estimated 15 million Christmas trees each year. That’s a lot of trees going in the trash. 

But there’s more to consider than that. Is a fake tree okay if you plan to keep it for years to come? Is a real tree the better option if you get it from a local grower?

101.9 WDET’s Annamarie Sysling spoke to Bert Cregg, Michigan State University Horticulture and Forestry Professor, about all your eco-conscious Christmas questions.

Click on the player above to hear MSU Professor Berg Cregg answer all your eco-conscious Christmas questions, and read a primer below.

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Is it better to get a fake tree to save a real tree from being cut down?

“There’s a lot of variables, so how do you line these things up and say one is better than the other? It’s pretty difficult to do.” – Bert Cregg, MSU Professor

Annamarie Sysling
Annamarie Sysling

When looking at the carbon footprint of artificial trees, there’s international manufacturers, packaging and distribution to take into account. For real ones, things like wildlife values, water use, helicopter harvesting in some cases and pesticide use are just some of the things to consider.

Cregg points to studies like the comparative life cycle assessment of both artificial and real trees commissioned last year by the American Christmas Tree Association, which represents artificial tree manufacturers, to demonstrate that the environmental impact of both options is very open to interpretation depending on the things taken into account.

The ACTA study concluded that the environmental benefits of having a fake tree come into effect after having the tree for about 5 years. 

Going deeper, there’s a report issued by the National Christmas Tree Association, a group representing sellers of real trees, citing the environmental advantages.

“The bottom line in all of it is the impact of either is pretty negligible,” says Cregg. “The tipping point really comes down to how far people drive to get their real tree.”

What about overall sustainability? Real or fake?

Cregg says that when considering the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental, real trees are the clear winners. 

He notes that “when you start thinking about social interactions, we have things like growers donating hundreds of trees for Trees for Troops, so those are trees going to families who have service men or women deployed overseas.” Examining the economic factor, Cregg says buying Michigan-grown trees means that you’re supporting local growers and farmers. He says there is no clear comparison for the environmental pillar of sustainability.

However, supporting local food systems is more environmentally-friendly for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being the proximity between the grower and consumer. 

So where can I find a locally-grown tree?

Cregg says there are Christmas tree farms scattered all throughout the state — and buying locally can cut carbon emissions in shipping trees. 

“The largest areas of [Christmas tree] production are up north around Cadillac, Wexford County and that area, but we have large farms in Ionia, in the southern part of the state, farms in the western part of the state and then lots of choose-and-cut farms, smaller growers scattered throughout the lower peninsula and even some up in the UP,” says Cregg. 

He recommends visiting MCTA.org because of their handy interactive map that makes it easy to find a grower near you.

Should I buy an organic Christmas tree?

No, because the chances of finding a locally grown Christmas tree are slim, and the regulations surrounding growing practices are vague. 

“If you look at USDA-certified organic, that applies to food crops,” Cregg says. “You can have farms that are certified organic that are growing [organic] vegetables and they also grow Christmas trees, so they could advertise as being an organic farm that’s growing Christmas trees. You could also follow organic methods and say your trees are organically grown, [but] they won’t be certified organic. It’s really pretty loose when you look at it.”

Where can I find a pesticide-free tree? 

It’s difficult.

“To be honest, for most of the trees we grow there are some pesticides that are applied,” Cregg says. “It depends on the species. Douglas Fir is very difficult to grow in Michigan without fungicide sprays. We have several different needle cast diseases that they get so those would take some kind of fungicide application to get a harvestable tree.”

Other trees that are grown in Michigan for Christmas include Frasier Fir, which Cregg describes as “the Cadillac of trees,” along with Balsam Fir, Canaan Fir, Concolor Fir, Blue Spruce and Scotch Pine. 

What happens after the holidays are over?

There are three common disposal methods: Landfill, incineration or composting/recycling your tree.

The disposal method can often be a crucial part in the environmental impact of your Christmas tree overall. Lots of communities in Michigan offer Christmas tree recycling, and this is a great way to go as it could end up being part of your municipal compost next year. Just be sure to remove all non-organic materials (tinsel, ornaments, the tree stand itself) before you set your tree out at the curb for pickup.

Cregg has been working on on a “living Christmas tree” concept, also known as “conifers in containers.” 

“The idea there is you can put the tree on display in your home and then in the Spring when the ground thaws, you can plant [the tree] outside in your landscape and have a tree that hasn’t been cut and continues to grow from then on.”

If you plan on trying this trend out for the holidays, Cregg suggests getting a small tree so that it’s easier to move outside to plant. 

RELATED: Real Trees or Fake Trees? An Age-Old Holiday Debate

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