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Christmas trees are the centerpiece for many holiday celebrations and traditions. But, as consumers become more environmentally conscious, many may wonder: Which type of tree is more eco-friendly, real or fake?

After all, cutting down real trees seems to be shrinking our already depleted forests. However, fake trees are made of plastic, which doesn't seem all that green, either. 

These days, a survey by CGS found that for more than two-thirds of consumers, environmental concerns drive their purchases, and they're willing to pay more for sustainable products. Younger consumers, like Gen Z, are even more environmentally aware, with nearly 70% making an eco-friendly purchase over the past year.

So which tree fits better in an eco-friendly holiday? We looked into the environmental factors of the real vs. artificial Christmas tree debate to help you decide which type's right for you.

How eco-friendly are real Christmas trees?

“There’s absolutely no contest” that real trees are more environmentally friendly than artificial ones, according to Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade association for the farm-grown Christmas tree industry.

Plus, as these trees grow, they provide animal habitats, convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, and hold soil in place at the roots to prevent erosion, making it a greener choice, O’Connor says.

In contrast, fake trees are usually made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, plastic and metal, he says, and “at the end of its life, it'll spend 1,000 years in a landfill because it's not biodegradable, whereas the natural tree will go back to nature in the process of decay as nature planned it. And, often, they're repurposed for a second use.”

After the holidays, real Christmas trees can be recycled. Many communities collect trees and turn them into mulch or place them in local lakes and ponds to make fish habitats.

O’Connor compares the environmental impact of artificial Christmas trees to the plastic bags and straws problem, which have rallied consumers to change their habits.

“I keep thinking one of these days, the same trend that's made the plastic straw a sort of public enemy is someday going to take a look at that fake tree and say, ‘You know what, that thing’s a problem, too,’” he says.

How eco-friendly are artificial trees?

You may be surprised by this: When it comes to Christmas trees, artificial is the tree of choice for most consumers—82% of all trees displayed are artificial, according to an American Christmas Tree Association survey conducted by Nielsen.

The real question of eco-friendliness may depend largely on how long you keep your artificial tree. The longer you reuse it, the more environmentally friendly it becomes, says Jami Warner, executive director of the ACTA, a trade group representing the artificial-tree industry.

A 2018 study by ACTA on the life cycles of real and artificial Christmas trees concluded that artificial trees show a “more favorable environmental impact” when reused for at least five years. Warner says many people actually reuse artificial Christmas trees for an average of 10 years.

“Storing it properly in the off-season is the best way to ensure that it will be good to go when the Christmas season comes around again,” she says.

Store artificial trees in large, water-resistant bags, and keep in a cool, dry place during the off-season.

Another way to repurpose an artificial Christmas tree is to donate it, and Warner says many retailers offer donation programs for the trees.

Or buy an artificial Christmas tree made with polyethylene, or PE plastic, which replaces all or some of the PVC. PE plastic is more recyclable and durable, and trees made of this are becoming more popular (they also tend to look more realistic).

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