The Great Christmas Tree Debate

By Canopy Team on October 18, 2023

Sustainable Christmas trees: Is there a right answer?

A decade or two ago, the prevailing belief among green-conscious consumers was that an artificial Christmas tree was a better alternative to cutting down a live tree.

Today we know that artificial trees, many of them produced with harmful PVC plastics and lead, have a bigger carbon footprint than a cut tree, especially if they are only used for a few years before being discarded.

At the same time, purchasing a cut tree involves decisions similar to buying an apple: organic versus grown with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers; locally grown versus Oregon grown; biodiverse versus monoculture.

In other words, there isn’t really one right answer. As you decide what’s right for you, consider these options:

Live Tree

A Redwood tree at Santa’s Tree Farm

Pros: A live tree is the most sustainable option if you want a fresh tree.

Cons: Most live trees can only survive indoors for 7-10 days before they begin to suffer. Many traditional Christmas tree species are not appropriate for our climate. Planting and caring for your tree after the holidays requires skill and commitment beyond digging a hole in the ground: is the site and soil appropriate for your tree? Are you committed and prepared to caring for your young tree?

Check the Canopy Tree Library for species suitability and think about using an alternative “California Christmas tree” species like Water Gum, Marina Madrone, Bronze Loquat, Podocarpus, or the aptly named New Zealand Christmas Tree. 

Cut Tree

Pros: While Christmas trees are being grown, they contribute to green space and digest carbon. Christmas tree farms also help stabilize soil, protect water resources, and provide ecosystem services. After the holiday, recycling options such as mulching are also beneficial to the environment.

Cons: Cut trees are often grown with harmful chemicals. The availability of sustainably-farmed trees (organic, local, biodiverse) is limited.

Sustainably-farmed trees: Nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains are several Christmas tree farms that offer sustainable options. Santa’s Tree Farm and Village in Half Moon Bay grows Monterey Pines and Redwoods that are both native to the area and appropriate for the coastal climate.

In Los Gatos, Black Road Christmas Tree Farms offers Christmas trees grown without chemicals. While most of their trees are non-native Firs, they do carry young Sequoia trees, native to the nearby Sierra Nevada mountain range.

SummerWinds Nursery in Palo Alto, the Los Altos Kiwanis annual fundraiser, and Honey Bear Trees in San Carlos all carry cut trees if you’re looking for one a little closer to home.

Conventional Artificial Tree

Pros: They can be used for a number of years, ranging from six to twenty.

Cons: Ninety percent of conventional artificial trees are produced in China with petroleum-based PVC chemicals and lead, and will not decompose in the landfill.

Alternative Artificial Tree

Alternative eco-friendly Christmas trees are beginning to emerge on the market. Options include cardboard trees, plywood trees and creative do-it-yourself projects. Here are some fun examples. While the eco-chic Christmas trees on the market may intrigue you, consider the overall carbon footprint before you whip out your credit card.

Christmas Tree Recycling

Many municipalities and local businesses offer options for recycling your Christmas tree. Check with your City or County, or search for a recycling solution in your area.

Making Your Peace

Caring for the earth and being conscious of your consumption is worthy work. While one person may decide to forgo a tree and start a new tradition, another person may decide to serve a sustainably-farmed holiday meal…..or perhaps give a loved one a Canopy Tree Gift!

Happy Holidays from Canopy!

Additional reading: Natural vs. artificial: Which Christmas tree option is better for the climate?

Looking for other sustainable holiday ideas? Check out these tips from the Canopy staff!

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