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The Sustainable Guides Christmas series: Christmas Trees

A sustainable Christmas, can be achieved with a number of decisions made using our previous knowledge and common sense. Gift wrapping using sustainable materials reduces plastic waste, buying vegan products reduces carbon emissions and gifting from responsible companies reduces unethical work conditions for employees. The list goes on.

But when it comes to buying Christmas trees, no obvious answer came to mind for us at Sustainable Guides. Should we be buying fake trees or real ones? 

Your initial thoughts might include the idea that fake trees can be reused, therefore making them the more responsible choice. You might also consider that real trees aren’t made of plastic and therefore won’t end up in landfill. 

Whatever your initial thoughts are on this topic – you’re not alone in simply being unsure. Whether to buy a real or fake Christmas tree, is a conversation that deserves an answer longer than A or B. In this article, we let you know which option is the more sustainable of the two by looking at two criteria: carbon emissions and waste. Finally, we also provide an option for the ultimate responsible Christmas tree. Let’s get started.

Carbon emissions 

Fake trees

How sustainable are fake Christmas trees in terms of carbon emissions? The simple answer is, they’re not. Fake Christmas trees are made from non-renewable plastics and petroleum-based products. In fact, the carbon footprint of an artificial tree is on average 40kg. If you are to use the tree for approximately 12-20 years, you will find that the carbon emissions used to make the tree can be ‘forgiven’. Having said this, in the US 10 million artificial trees are purchased each season, making it unlikely that this 20 year life span is adhered to. Unfortunately however, this isn’t the end of the story. 

Artificial trees are produced mostly in China, which isn’t good news for the carbon footprint of the tree either. If you live in the UK, in Australia, the US, Europe, or quite frankly anywhere that isn’t China, your tree is travelling across oceans to sit in your living room. To be precise, nearly 90 percent of artificial trees are shipped across the world from China. Around one third of the 40kg of carbon each tree releases into the atmosphere is from the travel alone. 

All in all, when it comes to carbon emissions, a fake tree is really not advisable, unless you’re purchasing it to use for at least 20 years. If that’s what you are doing however, you’ll be doing just fine in terms of carbon emissions.

Real trees

Real Christmas trees can often be bought locally. Not requiring shipping from far-flung parts of the globe, your real tree’s carbon footprint is lower. Purchase your fir from down the road, and you’ll be saving on a great deal of carbon.

But what we’re often forgetting when we consider carbon emissions from Christmas trees, is that they are just that: trees. Because Christmas trees absorb carbon dioxide, they are inherently better when it comes to carbon emissions. Just imagine this: 

“At any one time in the UK there are about 100 million trees growing with all the benefits that trees give to the environment. These trees would not be growing if it weren’t for the Christmas tree market.” – Oliver Kenny of Yorkshire Christmas Trees explained to the Guardian.

In addition: 

“Out of the 350-500 million growing on tree farms across the U.S., only 30 million trees are harvested for Christmas each year. Buying real trees will help keep tree farms in business – and in turn keep their lands covered in the healthy forest habitat that wildlife depends on to survive.” – The nature Conservancy.

In other words, supporting Christmas tree companies can directly pay for the growing of trees and  a resultant reduction in the atmosphere’s CO2. In theory then – if you buy your tree locally – your carbon footprint can not only be reduced at Christmas, but it could actually become negative. 

Later in this article, we will offer some tips for ensuring your Christmas tree provides a negative carbon footprint. However, for now we will simply advise that if your real tree ends up in landfill, it produces 16kg of carbon dioxide as it decomposes. There are much better ways to handle the disposal of you tree. But first, let’s talk about waste.

Waste 

Fake trees

A fake tree ending up in landfill is a disaster. Your fake tree might be just fine in terms of carbon emissions if you use it repeatedly, but a fake tree in landfill is bad news. There’s simply no way around it. Most artificial trees are made from plastic and a particular type called PVC which is made from fossil fuels. Whilst it is possible to recycle PVC, it is notoriously difficult to implement and does require special equipment. What’s more, most fake Christmas trees are actually made from a number of materials including steel as well as different plastics, making it difficult to deconstruct and recycle efficiently.

Regrettably, fake Christmas trees certainly fall into second place when it comes to waste, with their eventual disposal in landfill and inability to decompose making them directly harmful for the environment. 

Real trees

Naturally, the best thing about real trees is that they can decompose. Whilst this does result in methane production, they don’t hang around in landfill for thousands of years. Real Christmas trees are completely biodegradable and recyclable.

This might surprise you, but when it does come to disposing your real Christmas tree, burning it is also a good method. For a two metre tall Christmas tree in landfill, 16kg of CO2 is released, as we mentioned above. On the other hand, if you burn your tree you can significantly reduce the carbon footprint by up to 80%. You might be interested to know, that burning a real tree emits the carbon dioxide that the tree stored during its lifetime and no more, meaning there is no net increase in carbon released into the air.

In some countries local authorities even send around a collection service for trees, piling them up and shredding them for use on gardens and public parks. This too is a great option for disposal. 

A Sustainable Guides answer

You might now better understand the argument with regards to whether fake or real Christmas trees are more sustainable. One thing is however clear; choosing a sustainable Christmas tree is not easy and the answer is not simple. There is however a very clear winning scenario we’d like to explain next.

Fake trees are unfortunately never going to be considered fully sustainably. Despite their ability to be reused, their carbon footprint is fairly high and their inability to decompose is problematic. So what about if you could reuse a real tree? 

There’s absolutely nothing stopping us as consumers from reusing a real Christmas tree, and if you’re looking for a sustainable option, this is as close as you can get. A real tree which is kept growing in a pot or in your garden can result in that negative emission we’re after. In other words, a continuously growing tree can not only reduce your footprint but it can actually take carbon out of the air on your behalf.

Pot-grown trees which can be planted out in the garden after the Christmas period, or re-potted and used again next year (and the year after that) are rising in popularity. In the UK, the country’s largest garden retailer witnessed 20% growth in sales of potted trees from the year before. It looks like Christmas tree traditions could be changing. So, if you haven’t already bought your tree this year, head out and grab a potted one. If you’ve already got your tree, consider a potted fir for next year. 

How to look after a potted Christmas tree

Potted Christmas trees are either grown in containers and kept small, or sold with roots and a clump of soil for you to manage yourself. Pot your tree as you like when you get home, if this hasn’t already been done. Whilst it’s inside, decorated and glistening with Christmas lights, treat your tree like any other house plant. Water it with up to a pint a day depending on its size, to keep the needles in tact. Avoid leaving it next to a hot radiator. 

Once Christmas is over, it’s time to send your Christmas tree outside for a year of fresh air and growth. Repot the tree in a larger pot and leave it outside. Watch your tree grow in your garden each day until December next year. Treat the tree right, and you could have your own living Christmas companion celebrating with you every year. We think that’s pretty special.

For more tips and tricks for a sustainable Christmas, click here.

Jessica Beaumont
Noticing the footprints left behind by travellers in the countries she has lived in and loved, Jessica found her calling in the sustainable travel niche. Aside from writing, Jessica is found exploring the Adelaide Hills for good views and delectable wines, dancing, taking leisurely walks on the beach and trying to make friends with dogs.