It’s difficult to walk down the city sidewalks this time of year without feeling the urge to deck the halls. ‘Tis the season for pop-up Christmas tree lots on nearly every busy corner, and if walking through those pine-scented wonderlands doesn’t squash your inner-Scrooge just a little bit, well…here’s a hug.

Even in our house, where we celebrate two different winter holidays, it’s starting to feel a bit like Christmas. We’re actually thinking of getting our very first tree this year, inspired mostly our 10-month-old daughter, who will almost certainly lose her mind over the twinkle lights.

But, like any good citizen, my first thought after making this momentous decision was an age old question that many of you have also probably asked: which kind of tree—real or artificial—is better for the environment?

Deck the Halls…with Pine or Plastic?

As it turns out, the answer is both straight-forward and complicated.

If you’re only here for the quick answer, then here it is: it’s more environmentally friendly to buy a real tree. Go for it!

If you’re here for the details, then onward.

Real Trees

There are more than 15,000 Christmas tree farms in the United States.

Last year, Americans purchased 26.9 million live Christmas trees, nearly all of which were grown on tree plantations located in all 50 states. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are more than 350,000 acres devoted to growing these trees on more than 15,000 farms.

So, buying a real tree is just like buying any other agricultural product! It supports farmers, keeps money in the local economy, and ensures that land stays productive (and undeveloped).

Like other agricultural products, a locally-grown (organic, if you can find it!) tree is usually the best choice for the environment. Local trees have a smaller carbon footprint (because they don’t travel as far) and reduce the likelihood that you end up with a non-native, invasive species cruising around your living room.

Also, fast-growing pine trees absorb quite a bit of carbon from our atmosphere, something we could definitely use more of these days.

Finally, at the end of the holiday season, there are even eco-friendly ways to dispose of your fir-ry friend. Stay tuned for a separate post about how to do that if you live in New York City.

Artificial Trees

Many of the artificial trees sold in the U.S. are manufactured in China.

First, let’s just get this out there: if you already have an artificial tree—and there are plenty of valid reasons to go this route—then keep it! Research suggests that using a fake tree at least 10 times makes the carbon footprint even out to using a real tree. So take good care of that sucker.

However, if you’re still on the fence, then consider the following. Many (if not most) of the artificial trees sold in the U.S. are shipped here from China. Most of China’s electricity comes from burning coal, and once the fake trees are made, they still must be shipped across the ocean, creating more emissions.

Artificial trees are also generally made from non-biodegradable plastics like PVC, and some have been found to be contaminated with lead.

And, plastic trees also can’t be recycled when it’s time to upgrade.

Other Ways to Deck Your Halls

Of course, it’s possible that a real Christmas tree just isn’t your thing. Maybe you hate the smell of pine, have an allergy, or don’t want to deal with lugging the darn thing up (and eventually down) multiple flights of stairs. Not to mention, cut trees, especially in New York City, can be quite pricey!

Luckily there are other ways to deck your halls.

  • Try a live tree or other plant from your local nursery. Rosemary or Norfolk pine are great choices, but get creative!
  • Skip the tree altogether. Ask your local tree stand if you can snag some trimmings for free or cheap, then hang them throughout your apartment. Twinkle lights optional.
  • Go modern. Try this 6-footer made from good old, biodegradable cardboard. Bonus points: it’s made in the USA.

Have other suggestions? Let us know in the comments section.