Fake vs. Real – Which Christmas Tree is Actually Better for the Environment?
In this blog, we will take a deeper look at the ongoing debate surrounding the seasonal favourite – the Christmas tree. This debate is important and timely, both in a seasonal sense and from a wider environmental perspective. While the vast majority of us aim to do the right thing for the environment to the best of our ability, factual unfamiliarity can lead to an unintentional festive faux pas. For many of us, this really is the most wonderful time of the year; while we all need some festive fun, we cannot deny the potential for extravagant over-consumption around this time of year. With that in mind, each Christmas countdown presents a new opportunity to take action and make positive festive choices with what’s available to us.
As it happens, and with the information we’re presented each year from both sides of the coin, both artificial and natural tree suppliers argue that their offering is the best and eco-sensitive option. So, let’s take a level approach and look at how each type of tree weighs up when it comes to the specifics of carbon footprint, sustainability, production, disposal, and any extended options available in taking a more eco-sensitive approach.
Let’s Start with the Carbon Footprint
How long do you leave your tree up after Christmas? Some take it straight down and others love to keep the festive fun going over into the new year. No matter how long or short you keep the tree up in your home, the question remains of what to do with the tree at the end of its use. Many people simply throw them away- out of sight, out of mind, right? Not quite.
A natural Christmas tree – such as fir, spruce, or pine – that is disposed of in a landfill emits roughly 16kg of CO2 as it decomposes – a colossal carbon impact for a tree that we enjoy for a short period in its lifetime. This figure is drastically reduced to only 3.5kg if it is processed into chippings or burnt as firewood. With these figures in mind, let’s see how this compares to the carbon footprint of an artificial tree.
According to the carbon trust, a typical six to seven feet tall artificial tree produces approximately 40kg of CO2 in its production- roughly double the amount produced by a real tree. The majority of traditional fake trees are constructed of PVC film, a plastic that is manufactured using fossil fuels, producing extremely high volumes of greenhouse emissions. From these figures alone, it would appear that reusable artificial trees are not necessarily the best option when aiming for an eco-friendly Christmas. Let’s take a closer look at the production line.
When purchasing a real tree, Friends of the Earth recommends purchasing one that is either produced in a local nursery or grown in the UK with FSC certification which helps to cut down on emissions associated with transportation and importation. However, real Christmas trees are not born equal; some are fresh-cut, and others are pot-grown. It’s worth looking for Christmas tree farms with a sustainable and green ethos. Environmentally-conscious businesses such as ‘Gower Fresh Christmas Trees’ – Wales’ largest Christmas tree producer – boast more than just growing profits. Former-cattle farmer Robert Morgan describes the wealth of wildlife habitat provided by over 500,000 trees at his peninsular farm; a hugely diverse habitat of deer, badgers and birdlife, a commercial crop of this size gains multiple replanted trees for every one felled in the festive season.
In contrast, the process of making the plastic tree from oil accounts for the majority of its carbon footprint; approximately two-thirds, according to the Carbon Trust. Another quarter is generated by industrial emissions generated during the tree’s construction. Additionally, they are frequently transported long distances before arriving in the shop and then driven to your home, with the vast majority being made in China and shipped worldwide. While this doesn’t sound very environmentally-friendly, there are a variety of sustainability factors to consider.
Can we really argue that a real Christmas tree is a sustainable option? Afterall, you buy it once in its short lifetime and enjoy the tree for an average period of ten days before disposing of it in landfill. We chop a living tree down just simply to throw it away, essentially. On the other hand, artificial Christmas trees can be reused year after year, giving the appearance of long-term sustainability in-line with the ‘reduce, reuse’ mantra. They can become a much-loved part of the tradition. After they start to bald and break though, can they be recycled? After an average reuse of 7-20 years – by which time they become carbon neutral – once an artificial tree has reached its shelf life and is ready for an upgrade, there are very few other options than to send the tree to landfill (other than making a few nice wreaths from the remaining branches, perhaps!). These would take hundreds of years to degrade. Where specialist recycling facilities can cope with the variety of oil by-products in plastic trees, this process itself generates much more CO2 than disposing of a real tree.
Contrastively, there are several options available for discarding of your natural tree such as transforming into chippings, composting and thus replenishing the soil cycle, or burning the tree as firewood; studies show that the release of carbon through burning is dramatically more favourable than methane release from rotting in landfill, after all. In addition to this, real trees absorb tremendous amounts of carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere throughout their lifetime, making for an obviously environmentally friendly option. Alternatively, the US wildlife service suggests recycling real trees in your own back garden for an eco-friendly fix. By moving the tree outside after the festive period is over, the tree can be repurposed as a wildlife habitat and bird feeder. Decorating your tree with suet, nuts, berries, and other edibles can benefit a range of animals during times of seasonal scarcity; this is even more achievable and beneficial long-term if the tree is pot-grown.
Overall, there are a number of ways to lessen your impact depending on which type of tree you choose. While neither option is particularly ‘environmentally friendly’, opting for a genuine locally sourced pot-grown tree that can be reused, repurposed or transplanted provides a much greener option overall.
If you still feel inclined to purchase a reusable plastic tree this Christmas, think of it as an investment for 7-20 years and investigate recycling options for the specific materials of that tree. Further eco-options include decorating a living tree outdoors or even making your own tree from recycled materials.
With so many beautiful and cost-effective trees on the market, you may be persuaded to go with something a little different this Christmas.