Real or fake: choosing the best Christmas tree for the environment

A man wearing a flannelette shirt, gloves and cowboy hat smiling as he inspects a Christmas tree on a Christmas tree farm

Nicola Dowse

Posted November 16, 2022

Both real and fake Christmas trees have their own pros and cons for deciding how best to celebrate the festive season. Do you know which is better for the environment?

There are lots of choices to make when planning for Christmas: turkey or ham? Pudding or pav? Star or angel? Real tree or plastic?  

When it comes to choosing your Christmas tree there’s a lot to consider. For some, the smell and look of a natural tree reigns supreme, but for others the no-mess, no-fuss of an artificial tree is king.

But when it comes to choosing a tree, the impact each type has on the environment is increasingly front-of-mind for consumers.  

When looking at the environmental footprint of real and fake Christmas trees, it’s important to think about where and how the tree is produced, how long it’s used for and how it’s disposed of once it reaches the end of its life. Also consider how you’ll light your tree, with switching to cleaner solar energy one way to make your Christmas lights more Earth-friendly.

Kids running through trees at a Christmas tree farm

Real Christmas trees are usually sourced from dedicated farms that may also offer a disposal service. Photo: Getty.

The argument for a real Christmas tree

In Australia, the main type of natural Christmas tree available is the pinus radiata, otherwise known as the Radiata pine or Monterey pine. These are an introduced species that are typically grown on dedicated Christmas tree farms. They generally do not contribute to deforestation but it’s a good idea to confirm how and where the trees are sourced from the specific farm you purchase from.  

Once they reach maturity, they’re cut down (or in some cases, taken with a root ball to keep the tree alive in a pot) and either driven home by the customer or delivered to the residence.  

One of the biggest environmental benefits of a real tree is that, like all plants, they absorb carbon dioxide throughout its entire life, drawing it out of the atmosphere. This carbon remains stored in the tree while you display it at home too.  

Natural Christmas trees are also completely biodegradable and can be sustainably disposed of after Christmas as well. Chipping the tree into mulch or composting keeps the tree out of landfill (and benefits your garden).

Some Christmas tree businesses even offer post-Christmas disposal services where they’ll mulch the old tree to help grow new trees.  

If opting for a real Christmas tree, try to source it as close to home as possible. This reduces the amount of emissions produced in collecting the tree or having it delivered.  


A person hanging ornaments on an artificial Christmas tree

Reusing an artificial Christmas tree for four or more years reduces its environmental footprint. Photo: Getty.

The argument for a plastic Christmas tree 

Artificial Christmas trees are commonly made of a type of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Like all plastics, it’s created from oil which is a finite resource. The creation process also produces carbon dioxide (as opposed to growing a real Christmas tree, which absorbs it). 

Fake trees are often made overseas in countries like China, meaning that they’ve produced even more carbon-emissions during their long journey to your home. Plastic Christmas trees also can’t be recycled, often ending up in landfill.  

Despite this, artificial trees have one big advantage over natural trees – their longevity. Unlike real trees that only last one festive season, artificial trees can be packed down and wheeled out year after year.  

Environmental groups have argued that using an artificial tree for four or more years can help offset its carbon footprint. If cared for, many fake Christmas trees can even last up to 20 years.  

Alternative Christmas trees 

Your options aren’t restricted to real or fake. There are alternative Christmas tree options available commercially, as well as trees you and your family can craft yourself. 

Potted Christmas trees 

Want the longevity of an artificial tree with the environmental benefits of a real tree? Consider a potted Christmas tree instead.  These trees are often smaller than those available cut, but with the right maintenance and pruning can stay in shape for many festive seasons.  

Potted trees also allow for native varieties like the Geebung or Wollemi pine. You can even start with a small potted tree and make it part of your family’s Christmas tradition to repot the tree every year as it grows, eventually planting it in your garden once it gets too big.  

Wooden Christmas trees 

Sometimes referred to as ‘Scandi’ Christmas trees for their pared-back, minimalist look, these trees are made from wooden rods attached like branches to a central wooden pole to mimic the shape of a pine tree.  

These are a good option you’re after a reusable, no-mess tree but don’t want plastic. If made from real wood, these Christmas trees still sequester carbon in the same way natural trees do. Those handy with a hammer could even try making their own wooden tree using reclaimed timber for added sustainability points.  

Card trees 

If you’re short on floor space but big on Christmas cards, take care of two problems at once by creating a card tree. Simply stick your Christmas cards to a wall in the shape of a tree. Place presents underneath the tree as normal. 

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