San Francisco Department of the Environment

Rock Around a Green Holiday Tree this Season!

Holiday tree

What kind of tree will you be rockin’ around this year? From artificial, to farmed, to potted–deciding which tree to buy is no easy feat. Before you opt for that fresh pine scent from a fresh tree, or the convenience of a collapsible artificial one, consider which kind of tree truly is the “greenest.”

Living Trees   /  Artificial Trees   /   Farmed Trees  /   Potted Trees  /   Lights

Living Trees

Adopt a living tree through Friends of Urban Forest Green Christmas

What is the greenest Christmas tree?

The best choice is a tree that you know for sure will be planted after the holiday season. Green your holiday celebrations with a living, potted tree, hand-picked to thrive on San Francisco's streets. Return the tree after the holidays, and Friends of the Urban Forest will plant it in a neighborhood that needs more trees. Other programs that loan or rent trees do not have a defined planting location. Our program highlights trees that FUF knows will be planted, based on data that they have on which trees people choose. FUF also plants 1200+ trees per year, so these trees do have a defined planting location. They are the best choice and a choice that is only available to San Franciscans.

Artificial Trees

The farthest thing from Green

How I long do I need to use an artificial tree to make it a better choice than a real one?
The majority of artificial trees come from China. After considering the fuel and carbon dioxide emissions that are required to manufacture an artificial tree and ship it to the United States, you would need to use your artificial tree for approximately twenty years to make it a better choice than a real tree. Unfortunately, the average life span for artificial trees in North America is only six years.

Do artificial trees contain any chemicals I should know about?
Artificial trees are made out of a chemical called polyvinyl chloride, or PVC (# 3 plastic). PVC is a plastic made from petroleum (oil). A class of chemicals called “phthalates” is often used to soften PVC plastic and make it flexible. Studies show that phthalates mimic hormones in the body and can cause reproductive damage. Since phthalates can leach out from PVC plastic into dust, exposure to phthalates can occur from PVC plastic items, including artificial trees.

How do I dispose of an artificial tree?
Artificial trees cannot be recycled, so they must go to the landfill. Because they are made out of plastic, they will not break down and will remain in the landfill for eternity.

Farmed Trees

A better choice than artificial trees

Should I feel bad about purchasing a farmed tree?

If you purchase a farmed tree in San Francisco, it most likely came from the Pacific Northwest. While these are more “local” than an artificial tree from China, they still require transportation to your local tree lot, resulting in carbon emissions.

If you want to find a tree that requires less carbon emissions, see if you can choose and cut your own tree locally. Driving to a local tree farm, cutting your tree from the ground, and bringing it home requires less carbon emissions than having your tree shipped from the Pacific Northwest—and it can be fun! 

Do farmed trees contain any chemicals I should know about?
Although conventionally farmed trees can be sprayed with pesticides that cause varying health impacts, it is more environmentally preferable to opt for a farmed tree over an artificial one that releases toxic chemicals through production, use, and disposal stages.

How do I dispose of a farmed tree?
In San Francisco, Recology will collect your tree! Just leave it on your curb during these dates in early January. It won't go to the landfill- it will be chipped and used as biomass (boiler fuel). 

Potted Trees

The greenest option, with some reservations

Are potted trees the most sustainable choice?
A potted tree can be your most sustainable choice- as long as you know where you will plant it when you are done with it. This is the only scenario where a tree is being planted rather than thrown away.

Before you purchase a potted tree, make sure you know where you will plant it after the holidays. Potted pine or fir trees aren’t a good option for San Francisco residents because San Francisco doesn’t have much open space to plant these trees, which grow very large. If you want to plant your tree, you can get creative and opt for another kind of tree, like a lemon tree. If there isn’t room for one in your backyard, check if a friend, a nearby school, or a park will accept your tree as a donation after the holidays. Be sure to take good care of your potted tree- heavy ornaments or decorations can compromise root structure and tree health, making it difficult for it to survive after it is planted. 

What if I don’t have anywhere to plant my potted tree?
If you don’t have anywhere to plant your tree, the next sustainable choice is to get a farmed tree. Potted trees are not a sustainable choice if you throw them away (even if you recycle them) when you are done with them. That’s because potted trees require more water and nutrients than classic farmed trees. If you do try to recycle a potted tree, you must remove the pot and roots, otherwise it will not be recycled and will be sent to the landfill.


Regardless of which tree you choose, you will need lights! LED lights are the safest and most sustainable choice for your tree for several reasons:

  • LED tree lights use about 90 percent less energy than standard lights, which both reduces your energy bill and is better for the environment
  • LED lights are cooler, so they don’t contribute to drying out the tree, reducing fire hazard
  • LED lights can last for at least 20 years because they have no filament or glass bulbs, meaning they can take more abuse and operate both in cold and heat

LED lights are readily available at most stores that sell holiday tree lights.

Did you find a creative way to green your holidays this season? Share it with us on Facebook or Twitter!

More Information
How can I adopt a living tree in San Francisco?
How Green Can a Christmas Tree Be?
Comparitive Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of Artificial vs Natural Christmas Tree


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