Plastic Or Real Christmas Trees: Branching Out Sustainably

Tis’ the season to be merry AND to be sustainable, so does that mean going natural or artificial when it comes to our Christmas tree?

With the recent COP26 climate conference still fresh in people’s minds, the question that pops up this time of the year is to go real or fake this Christmas? And the consensus seems to be that artificial is the favourite sustainable option. But is it? Which type of tree do you think has the largest carbon-foot print?

  1. a natural tree without roots;
  2. a natural tree with roots (in a pot); or
  3. an artificial tree?

We are often told that keeping a real tree for only a few weeks a year is bad for the environment. Mass deforestation after all can cause climate change, flooding and increases greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Taking a real Christmas tree, just for fun, is clearly not helping. Being sustainable would thus mean opting for an artificial one. Duh.

But research carried out to compare the life cycle of artificial versus natural Christmas trees reveals that natural Christmas tree production can actually have a positive impact on climate change. Natural trees sequester CO2 during their period of growth and researchers have found that real Christmas trees, therefore, have a smaller carbon footprint than expected.

Branching out to a plastic tree though is a very cost-effective way to ‘do’ Christmas, and it means that the annual car journey to get a tree will not be required (a CO2 saving). Artificial trees have indeed been on a meteoric rise with only 18% of US households decorating a real tree in 2019. In the UK the use of artificial Christmas trees is growing quite significantly too, with black and pink plastic trees (!) being the most popular colours.

But, before cheering on the great move to ‘sustainable’ artificial trees, the most important part of the verdict of what type of tree is the ‘greenest’ is the way we dispose of our trees after Christmas. According to the UK government, if not re-used or re-cycled, 8 million trees each year end up in landfill at a cost of £22 million to the taxpayer.

The final proof is in the Christmas pudding… and the tree that has the biggest carbon footprint may surprise you. The Independent summarised the results from The Carbon Trust, comparing a 2-meter real tree with roots, a 2-meter real tree without roots and a 2-meter artificial tree and measured the emissions of each. It stated that:

  1. “a natural two-metre Christmas tree that does not have roots and is disposed of into a landfill after Christmas produces a carbon footprint of around 16kg of CO2.”
  2. “A two-metre tree that does not have roots and is properly disposed of after its use — by burning it on a bonfire, or having it chipped — has a carbon footprint of around 3.5kg of CO2, 4.5 times less than the landfill option.”
  3. “On the other hand, a two-metre Christmas tree made from plastic has a carbon footprint measuring at around 40kg of CO2, more than 10 times greater than a properly disposed of real tree”. In effect, an artificial tree, like electric cars, will only be worth its environmental weight when used for a long time – about 10 years it seems.

Lastly, taking a real tree with roots and planting it in your garden (if you have one) has of course the lowest carbon footprint of all. But then, over time, it would become quite the forest…

You probably already have your tree up now and made the choice. What matters more, however, is how you dispose of it after the festive period. For your real tree, bring it to a place where the tree is used for chippings or look for an organisation or charity that offers a ‘tree-cyling’ service where its trunk could be used to build effective flood barriers in communities around the UK, for example. And your artificial tree, fold it up and use it again for many years to come.

Having the lovely scent of a real tree and knowing it can be recycled properly (and also doing this – these tree-cycling places are really everywhere) is adding that extra Christmas cheer and if anyone bothers you about your tree, rattle of the statistics above.

Merry Christmas!

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