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the great christmas tree waste debate: real or fake?

Photo by Toa Heftiba

Author: Julia McLellan

It’s that time of year again, but what impact is your tree having on the environment? Which is better, real or fake? Bare Market blogger Julia (AKA @zerowastewarbler) dives deep and explores which to opt for this holiday season.


Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, is there anything more evocative of the holiday season than the smell of a Christmas tree and the sparkle of the tinsel on a winter night?

My family always got a Christmas tree on December 1, but after going low waste, I started to wonder about the environmental impact of my holiday glow up. When the holidays roll around, is it better to buy a real tree or pull a fake one out of storage?

Is A Fake Tree The Way To Go?

As the nickname suggests, fake trees are made from artificial materials like PVC and aluminium, and can be used year after year.

They have the advantage of being less messy, and cheaper in the long term. No real trees were hurt in the making of your holiday ornament, and you ixnay the yearly drive to the tree farm.

But when something has a that great of a reference letter, it often comes with a bad rap sheet. While some great environmental stuff goes on while you’re in possession of the tree, we need to always remind ourselves to look at the whole lifespan of a product to understand its full impact on our Earth.

Photo by Annie Spratt


It’s estimated that 85% of all fake trees are made in China, under some pretty gruesome working conditions, with factory workers earning low wages and enduring potential health concerns. The trees have to travel all the way from China to distribution points, and will be shipped again after being purchased by Amazon. That’s a shocking amount of carbon emissions.

Most fake trees are made from a petroleum based plastic called PVC, a non-renewable resource that doesn’t break down and can’t be recycled. That’s right, you heard me. Every single falsie that has ever been made is likely still out there, either in a dump or destined for one. With over 50 million fake trees purchased last year, that’s a whole lotta landfill, my friends.

So to recap on fake trees -- Birth: not great. Life: some pros. End of life: super not great (I’m looking at you, dumpster).

The Real Thing

Do real trees fair any better on the enviro-scale? Most people’s beef with real trees is that we live in a time when maintaining forests is key, both for the climate and biodiversity. So should we really be cutting them down just to adorn our living rooms?

That would be a fair point if we were grabbing our axes and trekking into the great wild for our tree. But we’re not. Christmas trees are grown to be chopped down, often on lands that have been deemed unsuitable for other crops. They actually prevent agricultural land from being sold off to developers, promote green space, and keep family farms in business.

Photo by Nine Köpfer


Not to mention that while your tree grows (it takes about 10 years from seed to Santa) it draws down CO2 from our atmosphere, because, well, trees are magic. One farmed tree can consume one tonne of CO2 in its lifetime, and there are currently 350 million Christmas trees growing in the US alone.

But the most glorious thing is that the end of a real tree’s Christmas adventure isn’t even the end! Tree-cycling is huge in most cities, because trees can be turned into wood chips and used in a variety of ways. When you throw your tree on the curb for pick up, it will become mulch for landscaping, hiking trails and parks, material for erosion prevention, and lakeshore stabilization.

The giant tree in Toronto’s distillery district has even been used to make lumber for Habitat for Humanity. Are there any cons? As with many crops, pesticides are used to farm the trees. There’s also the added element that not all people who want a Christmas tree live in a coniferous zone, so excessive driving and shipping can cost a ton of greenhouse gases.

So to recap on the real thing -- Birth: generally good, but some pesticides may be used. Life: great. End of life: great. 

A Third Way: The Living Tree

My favorite option by far is the living potted tree. Now, before you trot off and buy one, know that it’s a different kind of Christmas than with a fake or real tree. Firstly, you can’t have it (BAM!) on December 1st.

Living trees are dormant in the winter, meaning they need to be out in the cold to stop them from coming out of hibernation and dying. I keep my potted beauty on the porch until it’s about a week before Christmas, decorate it to the nines, and then donate it to a park or green space after. Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation will accept your potted trees and run them through their tree “adoption” program called Tree For Me, which matches up citizens and green spaces with trees to promote tree planting in urban areas.

Quick recap - no tree had to die for my traditions, another tree gets planted in the world, and I can sleep easy at night. If you’re in the Toronto area, there’s even a live tree RENTAL company called Sapling Life in Mississauga, who will deliver your potted tree and come pick it up after the holidays.

So, what’s it going to be this year - real or fake? Whichever route you take, it’s important to keep in mind the entire life cycle of a product and the impact that it can have. Be a conscious consumer! Let us know, are you trying something new this year?


About the Author: Julia McLellan is Canadian actor and activist currently working on Broadway in the hit musical Kinky Boots. By day, she is the founder of Zero Waste Warbler (@zerowastewarbler), a lifestyle blog dedicated to helping people lessen their impacts on the Earth and join the low-waste movement.  

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