What's Greener: A Real Christmas Tree or Long-lived Plastic?

You better go sharpen the ax.

Chop down a tree this Christmas. Really, go ahead. Actual trees are more eco-friendly than artificial, in more ways than one.

That is, unless you already have a fake tree in the attic. Then consider the pros and cons of keeping it—there's no reason to waste the resources that went into making it, or add to the mountains of waste the U.S. generates each year. Though you do have to factor in the environmental health concerns about PVC plastic.

If you're buying new, the answer is simple: Veer away from the knock-offs. The environmental toll of millions of imitation trees—most manufactured faraway in China—is substantial. A faux tree's entire makeup is pure plastics and petroleum. On average, people keep them for about six years, but PVC and metal last forever in a landfill. Real trees, on the other hand, are biodegradable. What's more, if they are grown and cut responsibly, they can help support a healthy ecosystem.

The most sustainable option when it's time to hang the tinsel is a genuine pine, because when your ax-work is finished, the farm will plant another tree. As that tree grows, it will produce oxygen, remove carbon dioxide and pollutants from the air, stabilize soils, help reduce flooding, and provide shelter for animals. And because Christmas trees are often grown on fallow fields or former cow pastures, they do not usurp old-growth forest. In fact, if a tree farm is planted adjacent to a woodlot it can blur the hard line between forest and freeway, increasing the variety of habitat available to wildlife such as woodcocks, grosbeaks, sparrows, and chickadees.

There is a sticky point, however. Many tree farms use nasty pesticides that can pollute water, poison wildlife, and bring toxins into the home. Ask tree farmers about their growing practices. Let them know that you'll accept a pine with a few imperfections if its not laden with the pesticides. Also scout for organic growers.

A live tree with a root ball ups the environmental ante, particularly if the species of pine is native to your region. You just have to be careful that the tree doesn't dry out before it goes back into the ground, and that you plant it properly so it will last for many Christmases to come.

What you do with a cut tree after the holidays can also spread some cheer around. Many towns offer Christmas tree recycling programs with curbside pickup or designated drop-off points. Most often the trees are chipped for mulch, and some towns make the mulch available to residents for free. Wildlife refuges will often accept donated trees, which can be used in a forest to provide small animals with shelter, or even in a pond or a lake to give fish a place to lay their eggs—a boon to birds that eat fish.

Depending on where you live, you might consider keeping your retired Christmas tree outside for a while to create a festive banquet for the birds and other small animals. Attract chickadees and purple finches with halved oranges filled with sunflower seeds. String cranberries, peanuts, and popcorn to make garlands and wreaths for titmice, jays, and mockingbirds. Twist millet seed stalks into candy canes for goldfinches and pine siskins. Spread pinecones with peanut butter and dip them in birdseed. The woodpeckers and nuthatches will love it. After the birds have had their feast, you can retire the tree to a brushy area where it will provide a shelter for wildlife all year round.

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