Real or fake? It’s time to choose the Christmas tree |

Real or fake? It’s time to choose the Christmas tree

Cassie Pence
Greener Pastures
thoughtful woman
Getty Images/Hemera | Hemera

It wasn’t until I moved to Colorado, 11 years ago, that I celebrated Christmas around a real tree. My three male roommates and I secured a forest permit, trudged up into the woods and cut down a tree so big it was as if that tree alone symbolized their manhood.

We lugged the wet, sappy and extremely heavy tree down a snowy slope and into our home. That’s when the reality of the tree’s magnitude set in. Scratching our heads, we worried it wouldn’t fit underneath the 20-foot ceiling. But when we raised it up, by the hands of some Christmas miracle, it fit – barely – leaving not even room for a star.

Back then we thought nothing of taking a tree from the forest. We were too smitten by the spirit, the twinkle lights, the smell of fresh pine and (for some of us) the manly challenge. It made our home feel like a holiday movie, and having grown up with a boring old artificial tree my whole life, for me personally, I was never returning to the plastic fakey.

My eco-conscious has grown up since then. Now I examine all my choices, striving to find a good balance between my wants and needs and the health and future of the planet. So as the time approaches to secure O Tannenbaum, this year I have to ask myself: What’s the greener choice, real or fake Christmas tree?

The fake debate

The Addis Brush Co., a toilet brush company, invented the first fake tree. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Now, 85 percent of fake Christmas trees are imported from China and typically made of PVC plastic – also known as polyvinyl chloride or simply “vinyl.” PVC is nasty stuff. It’s the major source of several dozen body-burden chemicals (toxic chemicals that linger in the body), according to an article on the Environmental Working Group site. Toxins are released through the products themselves and through production of PVC. It’s especially dangerous for small children (schools have worked to phase it out for years) because lead is a common contaminant.

But fake trees can last for decades, even generations, and by that time, I’m sure it’s degassed all that it’s going to degas. The American Christmas Tree Association – a trade group of artificial tree makers – claims fake trees have a much smaller carbon footprint than farm-grown Christmas trees, but that’s according to their in-house study.

Like many Americans, I question the integrity of products produced in China. There are some U.S.-made holiday trees, and some of the companies, such as Mountain King brand, use recycled PVC, which has no lead. You could also think about buying a fakey second-hand on Craigslist.

When determining the greener choice – no matter the choice – you have to think about the end of the product’s life cycle. According to Jesse Masten, operations manager at the Eagle County Materials Recovery Facility, fake trees can’t be recycled. So you might want to give it away when you’re done with it.

The farmed tannenbaum

Let’s consider the trees grown on farms and sold in lots, where someone like a used-car salesman inevitably guilts the parents into buying a larger tree than they can afford. The National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group that supports tree growers and the real tree tradition, points out that tree farms have a ton of environmental benefits. Tree farms absorb a large amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Farms stabilize soil, protect water supplies and provide refuge for wildlife while creating scenic green belts, the association says. According to my environmental science class at Colorado Mountain College, these “services” are true. But I would question each farm’s growing practice, asking about what kind of chemicals the farm sprays. Pesticide use may offset any benefits.

One eco downer about farm trees is the amount of fossil fuels it takes to transport the trees from farms to your local lot. So if you’re going to buy a real tree from a Christmas tree lot, ask where the trees are grown and seek out vendors that sell locally grown trees. You can find local and regional Christmas tree farms on or on Pickyourown, where you can also find farms that allow you to cut it down yourself.

Again, when seeking the greener choice, you have to ask, “How do I dispose of this tree? What happens to it after I’m done with it?” Local waste hauler Vail Honeywagon offers a special tree pickup after the holidays and the Solid Waste and Recycling department for Eagle County will have a roll-off container at the Edwards recycling drop site to collect Christmas trees. Most of the towns have a special collection site for Christmas trees, too. Once at the county’s Materials Recovery Facility, operations manager Masten says, “The real Christmas trees end up at the landfill tree recycling pile. We chip and recycle the wood chips about once a year.”

Tiiiiimber … cut your own

The U.S. Forest Service issues permits to people so they can cut down their own Christmas trees in designated woods, and in this valley’s case, it’s usually right outside our homes.

“We do it as a public service, so people can obtain live trees,” Brett Crary says, East Zone silviculturist, who works out of the U.S. Forest Service Minturn Ranger Station. “Plus, a lot of people enjoy the connection with the land, being able to be outside with their families and friends and have that experience.”

Crary says when you compare the amount of trees in our local wilderness to the amount of people who pull permits to cut their own Christmas trees, the ecological effects are so minimal it’s barely measurable.

“There are plenty of trees, and there are always going to be more trees filling in for the ones that are cut,” he says.

When choosing a tree, there are things to think about to lessen the impact, minimal as it is. Choose a tree that’s growing close to another tree. This will increase the amount of nutrients and sunlight available to the one you do leave, allowing it to flourish.

The greener choice

No matter what you decide, make your decision a conscious one. Make sure you ask where your tree comes from. And, how is it grown or made? For this writer, the greener choice is pulling a permit from the U.S. Forest Service and cutting it down with friends and family. It’s local, it’s fun exercise, and I don’t mind the Charlie Brown variety – one that’s kind of thin, not perfectly full because it’s been growing close to another tree. I have a close friend who turns a leafless aspen into art each year with lights and ornaments.

Plus, there’s something special about cutting down your own tree that all these sustainable factors don’t calculate in – tradition. Hiking into the woods with friends and family, not stopping until you find just the perfect one – a la Clark Griswold – creates memories that last. And isn’t that truly sustainable? Just don’t forget the saw.

Freelance writer Cassie Pence is passionate about living a more sustainable lifestyle. She owns Organic Housekeepers, a green cleaning company, and is actively involved in the Eagle-Vail Community Garden, the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability and Slow Food Vail Valley. Contact her at

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