Date posted: 08/12/2023 5 min read

Real or artificial Christmas tree – which is better?

We consider the total costs of real vs artificial Christmas trees – from their ticket price to their carbon footprint.

Quick take

  • Both real and artificial Christmas trees offer advantages and disadvantages from cost and environmental standpoints.
  • Although there is no definitive ‘best’ eco-friendly option, real trees sourced from local and sustainable farms – or artificial trees reused for many years – tend to produce the lowest carbon footprint.
  • Environmental advocates urge consumers to avoid buying new: to either reuse artificial trees, opt for potted or rented trees, or create ‘alternative’ low-waste decorations.

By Beth Wallace

Every December, the Christmas tree debate inevitably flares up: are artificial or real trees the better option?

At face value, real trees would appear to be the more environmentally friendly option. However, Barbara Nebel, CEO of trans-Tasman sustainability firm thinkstep-anz says that this isn’t necessarily the case. “It depends on many things, including how long people keep their artificial tree, what it’s made of, how far they travel to buy their tree and how they transport it home – for example, via an EV [electric vehicle], non-EV or even the local bus.”

Another consideration for some consumers is the type of business they’re supporting with their purchase. While artificial trees are predominantly made in China and sold locally by large retailers, Christmas tree farms are often small-to-medium enterprises that employ local people and support the local economy.

Cost can likewise be a determining factor. Reusable artificial trees sold at supermarkets and department stores can be priced from $10, while at the other end of the spectrum, higher quality, larger or pre-lit trees can sell for upwards of $1000. Single-use real trees, on the other hand, usually cost somewhere in the vicinity of $100 and rarely exceed $400. At the Dural Christmas Tree Farm in Sydney, for example, 5ft trees sell for A$125, while 11ft trees are available from A$400.

The pros and cons of real Christmas trees

During the three-to-four years real Christmas trees take to mature, they absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), convert it into oxygen, filter other gases (such as methane) and purify the air, all while providing a habitat for wildlife. According to the German Forest Protection Association, in 10 years one hectare of Christmas tree cultivation binds 145 tonnes of CO2, 300 tonnes of dust particles and provides 100 tonnes of oxygen.

However, it’s the real tree’s end of life that can have a negative impact. According to the UK’s Carbon Trust, a 2m real Christmas tree with no roots has a footprint of 16kg CO2 if it ends up in landfill. This is because the tree decomposes and produces methane gas.

Replanting a potted Christmas tree or having it chipped to spread on the garden reduces this footprint by up to 80% (to about 3.5kg CO2). While burning the tree is also an option, doing so will cause it to emit the CO2 that it stored while growing, alongside other greenhouse gases.

The ideal scenario when buying a real Christmas tree is to source it from a sustainable, ideally local, farm and to make sure it’s recycled back into mulch, rather than becoming landfill. Some farms, as well as local councils, provide this service.

The pros and cons of artificial Christmas trees

A key selling point for artificial trees is that they can be reused – plus, they save a living tree from being cut down, says Emily Fletcher, head of research and education at the Clean + Conscious Awards.

“Whilst it may seem sustainable to purchase a reusable tree, one has to look at what it is made of and where it is coming from, to work out if it is truly better for the environment,” she says.

Artificial Christmas trees are commonly made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyethylene plastics, both of which are derived from petrochemicals. A widely cited estimate suggests a 2m artificial tree produces about 40kg of greenhouse gas emissions, around 70% of which is attributed to carbon-intensive manufacturing methods.

Although some artificial trees are now made from recycled PVC, Fletcher points out that they still produce emissions during manufacture and transportation. “When it reaches the end of its life, it will then continue to exist in landfill for hundreds of years,” she adds.

Crunching the numbers on Christmas trees

Several years ago, thinkstep-anz published a comparative life cycle assessment study of different types of Christmas trees, calculating the emissions produced during every stage of the trees’ lifecycles – manufacturing or cultivation, as well as transport, lighting and the trees’ end of life.

The team found that after one year, a natural tree sourced 5km from the purchaser’s home produced the fewest emissions, followed by an artificial tree traveling the same distance, and finally a natural tree requiring a 25km journey. However, at the five-year mark, the natural tree taking the longer journey far exceeded the other options in terms of emissions, with the artificial tree producing the fewest. The team therefore concluded that an artificial tree that is reused for five or more years generally outperforms its real counterpart in the environmental department.

Meanwhile, several other studies have sought to identify this ‘break-even’ threshold, with results ranging from 10–12 years to more than 20 years.

Ultimately, Nebel says the lowest impact tree is likely to be the one that already exists, so instead of buying a new artificial tree, it’s better to buy a pre-loved one that someone’s selling locally.

“Choose a tree that’s made to last – well-made bristles, a stable base, child- and kitty-proof,” she adds. “If it’s easy to repair, all the better.”

Potted is best

Many environmental advocates agree that a potted tree is the most sustainable and cost-effective option at Christmas time.

For people that don’t have the space or inclination to care for a potted tree year-round, rental Christmas tree services are an appealing proposition.

In 2022, Steven Chinnery-Brown and his wife Kaitlin launched such an offering, Tree Shepherds, in Tauranga, New Zealand.

For anyone looking to buy or rent a potted Christmas tree, Chinnery-Brown says it’s important to make sure the tree has been grown in a pot from a seedling, which allows the root ball to develop and stay protected. “Some companies may plant Christmas trees in the land for faster growth and then dig them up and put them in a pot when they are at the right size, but this often damages the roots and in many cases these trees won't last in a pot long term,” he says.

Buyers should also consider whether the tree will grow well in a pot. For example, the common Christmas tree in New Zealand is a pine; however, this species’ deep tap root means it doesn’t grow well in pots and may only last a few seasons.

“On the other hand, although spruce and fir trees are slower growing than pine, they do grow well in pots long term,” says Chinnery-Brown. “In some cases, spruce trees can be in a pot for 10–15 years or more.”