Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, although some might argue that it’s also a time of rampant commercialism. However, if a more optimistic outlook is chosen, the festive tone prevails. Wide-eyed children gasp at soon-to-be-opened presents, parents dodge explaining the hows and whys of Santa’s magic for another year, and fake trees sit in the middle of it all, dressed in twinkling lights and tinsel, doing their part to keep the season at least a little sustainable.

True enough, it’s a supporting role; wrapped gifts and waist-inflating Christmas meals are the real stars taking center stage. But it’s a more than worthy role, enough to earn it a 77% share of Christmas-decorated homes. Indeed, fake Christmas trees have become increasingly popular in recent years, providing an alternative to chopping down real trees and the deforestation concerns that accompany them.

Considering their benefits, fake Christmas trees deserve their own seasonal gift. It comes in the form of a one-off article, a post that celebrates the manufacturing methods used to put these faux pine and fir trees in Yuletide-adorned living rooms.

Crafting the festive faux foliage

In a not-terribly magical start to this post, fake trees are made of plastic and metal. The polyvinyl chloride (PVC) needles arrive in a factory, likely somewhere in China, as a large reel of plastic tape. A cutting blade lowers onto the tape as it unreels and zips across the production line, cutting the thin film and shredding it into paper-thin confetti, narrow in shape and forest green in hue.

Hundreds of these evergreen emulating needles are twisted and worked into a flexible wire, which itself is wrapped in a plastic twine that emulates the greenery of tree branches. At the end of the process, the fake tree branches are cut by hand and crimped, made safe so that curious children can’t harm themselves on the sharp wire edges. The little mites should be opening their presents and searching for bright baubles on the tree, not receiving scratches from a poorly manufactured imitation branch.

Assembling the fake Christmas tree

Depending on the size of the tree, and these synthetic evergreens can get as tall as 15 ft or more, the pseudo trunk could be made of hardened PVC or of a more resilient metal core. Smaller ones are light and easy to carry. As for their larger cousins, well, let’s just say that bigger fake trees are large enough to hide a whole family of elves, so they need some kind of a load-bearing backbone.

Steel is a good option for this frame, as is a more lightweight aluminum alloy. Either way, plastic needles, and flexible wire are still used for the tree branches, keeping the silhouette of foliage lush and soft in shape. In regard to one of the 12 ft or 15 ft tall giants, thousands of shredded needles keep large trees looking just like the real thing. Of course, unlike the real thing, fake trees are designed to break down and fit in boxes, ready to be stored until the next festive season spins around.

A festive showdown of fake vs real evergreens

Turning this thought over and over in an eco-conscious mind, can plastic trees ever be considered a sustainable product? Surprisingly enough, the answer is yes. Granted, plastic Christmas trees aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when someone thinks about a recyclable item. PVC is notoriously difficult to recycle. This is true, but it’s not the materials that are in question here — it’s the long lifespan that saves these seasonal living room icons from being relegated to waste bins after a single use. Packed away and sent into storage in an attic, they avoid landfills. But it’s a long lifespan that’s only realized if they’re properly stored, in a bag or box, far from humidity and mildew.

It’s in the interest of saving the planet’s resources that families buy high-quality fake trees. In doing so, a waste ground won’t see that hard-to-recycle item appear within its refuse-filled belly for years and years. Central to this piece, can real trees boast the same claim? If families are self-aware, sure, there’s every reason to believe real trees can be sustainably disposed of. For starters, don’t be one of those families who thoughtlessly drops their castoffs into a trash bin, awaiting the weekly pickup from a garbage truck. These services aren’t set up to handle real Christmas trees, but there are other options.

Real trees are biodegradable. They can be taken to a city service, one that’s expressly set up to handle past their sell-date Christmas trees, at which point they’re recycled, mulched, and returned to the environment to become a part of nature’s cycle of life.

An eco-conscious farewell to the Yuletide fir

High-quality fake Christmas trees last a long time, sometimes as long as 20 years, but even eight years is a good amount of time, yet they’ll still eventually find their way into the waste system. Built-in lights and flocked branches, meant to emulate a mid-winter frost, complicate matters further, with more chemicals and plastics entering the ground. Worse still, they can break, or a family can find a new, taller or more Christmassy-looking plastic tree, one that’s brighter or greener. If the owner feels particularly Scrooge-like, the old tree is prematurely disposed of and sent to the trash heap.

It's important to keep Christmas trees away from a landfill for a few years, safely stored in an attic. If a new tree must be bought, consider buying a real Christmas tree. Its falling needles can be messy after they have passed their prime, so they cause a mess around New Year's Eve, but a quick look at a city waste management website will soon locate a drop-off service. Take it there to have it recycled and mulched.

Remember to remove the lights and decorations from a real tree before taking it to a tree recycling drop-off location. Little baubles and electric wire don’t do so well when consumed by a hungry woodchipper.