Even if you’ve already got your Christmas tree for this year, as half of us in the UK will have done by now, it’s not too late to reduce its environmental impact.
Over four out of five UK’s households will have a Christmas tree this year. Artificial trees are now much more popular than real ones: two thirds of people’s Christmas trees will be synthetic. And they’re not all green. Artificial trees come in all colours, including a rainbow.
So which type of Christmas tree is the ‘greenest’ in terms of environmental sustainability? It’s not a simple case of “real vs fake”. The sustainability of a tree depends on its origin, production methods, transportation, potential reuse, and disposal options [including transport].
The Environmental Impact of Producing Real or Fake Trees
The relative environmental impact of producing real or fake trees is pretty clear.
Nature’s carbon filters
It’s worth remembering that real trees don’t just look beautiful: they play a major role as nature’s carbon filters, improving air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide, releasing oxygen, and storing carbon until the tree dies. Deforestation, which reduces our established natural tree stock, threatens this vital environmental role, which is why the destruction of the Amazon rain forest is so perilous.
Where and how real Christmas trees are grown
Around 8 million real Christmas trees are sold in the UK each year. The good news is that they aren’t simply plucked from a natural forest. Most are grown on dedicated Christmas tree farms, of which there are around 1500. On established farms, new trees are planted to replace those being felled in any specific year. And whilst the Christmas trees are growing [some for up to 10 years], they’re positively improving our air quality, whilst providing a natural habitat for wildlife.
However, Christmas tree farming methods and their environmental impact vary. If production for the Christmas retail market is fast-tracked with pesticides and fertilisers in large scale dedicated farms, the chemicals and carbon involved in their production will counter the trees’ natural environmental benefits. Choosing organically grown trees, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council [FSC], avoids this problem.
Almost two thirds of people in the UK planned to have an artificial tree this Christmas. Artificial trees are usually made from non-biodegradable plastics like polyvinyl chloride [PVC]. Their production is heavy on fossil fuels, energy, and chemicals, adding to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover the vast majority are imported from China, which incurs a significant transport carbon footprint.
Lifespan of the Tree
Life expectancy of real trees varies
Then there’s the question of how many times the tree will be used.
Most trees bought from shops will have been harvested without their roots, and so will only last for one Christmas. You may choose to ensure that the tree was grown organically, but rootless trees still incur all the costs of production, disposal and transport each year.
Pot grown trees adapt biologically to their contained environment, and can last in the pot for several years. We have one in its third year, which sits happily in a corner of the garden all year and has just had a spurt of new growth.
Renting is an increasingly popular option for Christmas trees. The tree is delivered, potted with its roots, for a Christmas holiday in your living room and then collected and taken back to its home until it’s returned next year [often to the same renter]. And whilst it’s back in its home farm, it’s normally pot-grown, which reduces the amount of fertiliser required. Meanwhile, the tree continues to act as a natural air filter and habitat for wildlife. The down side is the carbon footprint of the transport, so a local supplier is essential and some now have an electric-only fleet and plan delivery routes to minimise miles.
Fake trees can last for years
An artificial tree, used over multiple years [7-20 years, depending on the weight and materials used] produces fewer emissions than buying a new, commercially grown real tree every year. However, many fake trees are discarded earlier than this. Careful storage is crucial to the lifespan of an artificial tree.
One way to overcome the undoubted carbon footprint of artificial trees is to buy one second hand.
Next, there’s the question of transport and its carbon footprint.
In the UK, 80% of Christmas trees are grown here, which reduces international transport, but the majority are grown on dedicated farms in Scotland, which will incur transport costs for most. If trees are bought each year, these costs can be significant.
Buying a tree from a local farm solves this problem and can be a fun experience with children [or even without!]. Indeed, some tree farms make quite an event of it with Santa and the full works.
There’s also the impact of transport to dispose of the tree [see below].
The overwhelming majority of artificial trees are manufactured in China, so there are massive transport costs associated with the initial purchase. However, these will be abated if the tree is used for many years.
When the plastic tree goes back in its box and/or the attic, does the real tree go to the local tip? It may seem like a good idea to let the tree rot, but actually it’s the worst way to dispose of it.. even worse than burning it. And over 6 million real Christmas trees head to landfill in the UK each year. As it gradually decomposes, the carbon in the tree is released and the microorganisms which colonise it generate methane which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Burning isn’t a great idea either, as it releases into the atmosphere the carbon stored in the tree, but the Carbon Trust sees this as carbon neutral.
The best way to dispose of real trees is to chip them into mulch, but this can involve energy costs in transporting it locally and, of course, running the chipping machine and then distributing the mulch. Nevertheless, chipping the trees reduces their carbon footprint by up 80% compared with sending them to landfill.
Artificial trees are definitely not biodegradable, which is why it’s important that they last for as long as possible. If they become unwanted/not needed whilst there’s still some ‘life’ left in them, finding a home for them second hand is the best option. Local swap shops, charity shops, care homes or women’s refuges may welcome them if they are still in good condition. Otherwise, they will need to go to landfill. What is clear is that it’s important to prolong the ‘life’ of artificial trees for as long as possible.
So What's the Greenest Option?
It seems that the greenest Christmas tree is a real tree growing in a pot, or replanted annually, used for several years. This could be possible even in a high rise flat with a balcony, if the tree is put outside after Christmas and kept watered, but it’s not an option for everyone.
Artificial trees only become ‘greener’ than real trees if they are used for over 7 years [some say 10].
What if You've Already Bought Your Tree This Year?
If you’ve bought a real tree without roots, then find a mulching scheme for its disposal in January. Don’t burn it, don’t dump it thinking that it will biodegrade fine, and don’t take it to the tip. Most local authorities have Christmas tree collection schemes which create mulch [sometimes in real time at the collection point]. And next year, think about buying a tree in a pot or renting one.
If you’ve already bought an artificial tree, then you can reduce its environmental impact by keeping it for at least seven years, and preferably 20. If you can't keep it that long, then find someone else or an organisation to pass it on to. Avoid landfill if you possibly can.
And if you’re thinking about buying new tree decorations [even if only to replace some], then you could consider making your own from lemons, oranges and apples and with pine cones. They smell fabulous! You can also cut your own out from used paper.. old sheet music decorations can look particularly classy.
Use LED tree lights, as they use much less electricity.
Thinking out of the Box .... A Radical Option
Given the overall costs and impacts of real or fake trees, it could be argued that the ‘greenest’ Christmas ‘tree’ would be a fir tree-like structure made from upcycled materials which would otherwise be discarded. But for many this may be a green step too far away from the look, feel and smells of a traditional Christmas. It could, however, be a great option for some people.
Small wooden Christmas trees are available from several large stores or online.. they're ideal for a small flat or a small room [perhaps a child's bedroom]. The look, smell and feel of these trees could be enhanced by hanging them with LED lights and home made decorations made with apples, citrus fruit and pine cones. And if you made the tree yourself from found materials, with home made decorations [but no lights] you could have a truly green Christmas tree with little or no environmental impact!
December 10, 2023 [V2]