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Which Christmas trees are better for the environment — live or artificial?

A reusable tree seems environmentally friendly, but cutting down a tree is actually better for the Earth.

Christmas trees are loaded onto a truck at JC Hill Tree Farm in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, on December 2. More people in the United States put up artificial trees at Christmas, but live, cut trees are typically more environmentally friendly. (Lindsey Shuey/AP)

A fresh, woody and, sometimes, spicy smell. Crunchy leaves that are so thin they’re called needles. Decorated with festive ornaments and colorful lights — or just white lights — depending on your family’s style. A Christmas tree is a December tradition for a lot of families.

More and more, though, that classic Christmas-tree smell isn’t there, and the leaves are not so much crunchy as they are plastic. Of the families that celebrate with a Christmas tree, most chose the artificial kind, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Artificial trees are reusable, which makes them convenient and seem environmentally friendly. But, a live, cut tree is actually the more responsible choice when it comes to the environment.

“People have the misconception that real trees are bad because you’re cutting down a tree, [but] the opposite is true,” says Bill Ulfelder, the executive director of the Nature Conservancy’s New York office. Trees are a renewable resource. Cutting them down and planting more, as Christmas tree farms tend to do, makes for a well-managed forest that helps the environment.

“Real trees are producing clean air because they’re photosynthesizing,” explains Ulfelder, who has a master’s degree in forestry. “So they’re taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”

Artificial trees, on the other hand, are made of plastic, which comes from fossil fuels. Live Christmas trees “are recyclable and biodegradable, whereas fake trees are not,” says Tim O’Connor, the executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association. “They will sit in a landfill for thousands of years.”

Artificial trees are usually produced in another country and require fossil fuel-burning vehicles to get them to the United States. Live trees bought in the United States are grown mostly by nearly 15,000 small, U.S.-based tree farms. The National Christmas Tree Association’s members are these growers.

Real trees can be recycled and reused in a lot of ways after the holidays. They can be repurposed as erosion control on beaches, stabilizing sand dunes against wind. Or they can have a second life as habitats for sea life.

The most common way the trees are reused, however, is turning them into mulch. New York City turns this process into a festive event the week after Christmas called Mulchfest. The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation shreds the trees, offers some to residents and uses the rest for public parks. As chopped-up trees, “they’re releasing those nutrients … to create better soil conditions,” Ulfelder says.

Live trees can also add to the surprises of the holiday season. Will this year’s tree be tall or short, bushy or skinny? Did Mom and Dad let you help chop it down on a visit to a nearby farm? As O’Connor said, “There’s usually something unique about it, and there’s often a story that [a family] can share.”

correction

An earlier version of this story quoted Bill Ulfelder of the Nature Conservancy as saying, “Real trees are producing clean air because they’re sort of photosynthesizing.” A review of the audiotaped interview made clear that he did not say "sort of." The story has been updated.