Fake vs real Christmas tree: what’s better for the environment?

30 November 2018

It’s an annual dilemma for many, whether you grace your home with the smell of a real tree or go for a less labour-intensive plastic variety. For lots of us, the question of environmental impact has become an understandable concern.

At first glance it may seem an obvious choice – surely with the devastating plastic problem and the use of oil contributing to global warming, it’s got to be a real tree? Well, it may not be that simple.

Real Christmas tree waste

Around seven million trees are bought every year and the government waste agency WRAP estimate that close to 160,000 tonnes of trees are dumped instead of recycled. And with the average tree sent to landfill having a carbon footprint of 16kg CO2, that’s quite an impact.

There’s a financial burden too – the trees that are fly tipped or sent to landfill could end up costing local authorities nearly £13m in landfill taxes. That’s money that might otherwise have been used to improve recycling services.

Real trees

Pros

  • If it’s a cut tree, it can be chipped. Lots of local councils offer recycling schemes where the chippings are put to good use. Some go straight onto walking paths, some are left to rot for use on flower beds as a weed suppressant, and some are processed to be used as soil conditioner.
  • You could enjoy a small bonfire using your tree – the Carbon Trust say that burning or chipping your tree reduces its carbon footprint by up to 80%. And burning the tree emits the same level of carbon dioxide stored when it was growing, so there's no net increase.
  • Buying a tree that’s certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ensures that your tree is coming from woodland that’s managed sustainably and ethically. 
  • Ethical Christmas tree farms provide an income to growers and are often on land that’s otherwise unusable, like steep hillsides. They also provide space for birds and wildlife and improve air quality while trees are growing.
  • Potted trees with roots can be used many times over. They’ll need re-potting after a few years as they get bigger and, in the end, they’ll need to go in the garden or be recycled – but the carbon savings are huge.
  • There are many places now where you can rent potted trees. These can be returned for re-planting at the end of the holidays.

Cons

  • If you buy a real tree that’s been imported from Europe, the carbon footprint is going to be greater due to the environmental impact of flying large quantities of spruce into the UK.
  • A lot of the trees we buy are intensively farmed on an industrial scale. These are often sprayed with fertilisers and herbicides such as Monsanto's Roundup (glyphosate). Try to find a small-scale organic grower.

Artificial trees

Pros

  • If it’s looked after well, a fake tree could last you a lifetime. But the chances of this happening are slim - most plastic trees are used for little more than a handful of years before being discarded.
  • Unwanted trees in good condition may be accepted by charity shops for re-sale or re-use. That way they’re being recycled and reducing their carbon footprint.

Cons

  • You would need 10 years usage out of your fake tree to have lower carbon emissions than its real counterpart
  • The Carbon Trust estimates the carbon footprint of a two-metre artificial tree to be around 40kg CO2. That’s over double that of a real tree that goes to landfill, and more than ten times that of real trees that are burnt.
  • It’s plastic (obviously), and that means it’s probably been made thousands of miles away and shipped around the world. And it’s going to be around for a very long time.

Fake or real Christmas tree?

It seems that overall, the best choice for the environment is a real tree, but only as long as there’s some thought as to where it’s come from. And with a real tree, the way it’s disposed of is much more significant.

A tree left to decompose on landfill produces methane gas which, according to the Carbon Trust is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So it’s essential that it’s recycled properly to make the least negative impact.

Alternative Christmas tree ideas

If you’re happy without a tree, there are loads of other things you could consider at Christmas. You could donate to the Woodland Trust and have a tree or area of woodland dedicated to someone special.

You could decorate a large house plant instead – that way you’ll still have a focal point to put your presents around. And there are plenty of ideas for Christmas ‘trees’ without the tree – we’ve seen them made from shelves, photos and even copper pipes. You just need to get a little creative.

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