Christmas Trees – The War Between Real & Plastic

Yey! We have reached the acceptable period of putting up the Christmas tree. This is the start of the festive period for many people, and is definitely something we look forward to in our household. There is something enchanting about getting out the decorations from the loft and creating a sparkling corner to the living room.

However this joyous ritual is causing many people additional stress this year with the discussions around the use of artificial vs real Christmas trees.

As the media has taken hold of more and more environmental messages this year, plastic has well and truly become the bad guy. Many people putting up their artificial trees have been on the end of negative comments about the support of a plastic product. However, infographics have circulated through social media showing that these plastic trees are more environmentally friendly than cutting down a living breathing real tree. This popular thinking has seen an increase in sales in artificial trees from some of the major UK department stores.

So is artificial or real more environmentally friendly? – If only there was a simple answer. The answer is more complicated, not because the evidence isn’t available, but because the question is too simple to start with.

Being ‘environmentally friendly’ covers a whole range of topics from chemical pollution, carbon emissions, damage to habitats and endangering wildlife. Both types of tree have plus and negative points to the above areas. A comparison carbon footprint can be created for any product, but it depends on length of time used, where purchased from and finally how it is dealt with at the end of its life. There are too many options to be able to give an outright answer. To give an overview, we have simplified the information and included a carbon footprint over a 10 year timescale to help you decide what is best for you.

Carbon footprints compared

Overall carbon footprints can be calculated, to help us compare the impact of each option. Take an example of a 2m/6.5ft tree:

  • Artificial tree during its lifespan – 40kg (2/3 from making plastic from oil, 1/4 from production process, remaining from transportation and packaging)

However unlike the calculations for real trees, the above figure that has been quoted by the press doesn’t include what happens to the tree at the end of its life. So further emissions will be created if it is burnt, or it will go into landfill where is will take hundreds of years to decompose, slowly releasing plastics into the environment. This figure of 40kg is only accurate if the tree is recycled at the end of its life – so for simplicity sake, we will assume that our artificial tree will be recycled. Bear in mind though that if it is not, the figure will be much higher.

  • Real tree ending in landfill – 16kg (decomposition produces methane which is 25 times worse greenhouse gas than CO2)
  • Real tree being burnt – 3.5kg
  • Real tree shredded – negligible or even negative emissions (if being recycled and used in compost or as bark chippings)
  • Real tree kept in a pot – negative emissions (if kept alive!)

Great! A much lower carbon footprint for each of the real tree options. However… unless it is potted, then these emissions are every year rather than a one off for the artificial trees.

These calculations also vary depending on how the tree is grown and where it has come from. If bought from a supplier who ships them in from another country, the figure is much higher.

Christmas tree forest
Locally grown Christmas trees provide a viable eco friendly option if disposed of correctly

For simplicity if we assume our artificial tree will be recycled at the end of its life, and all real trees are locally grown and not transported far, then we can make a rough comparison over 10 years:

  • 1 x artificial tree – 40kg
  • 10 x real trees ending in landfill – 160kg
  • 10 x real trees being burnt – 35kg
  • 10 x real trees shredded – negligible or even negative emissions
  • 1 x real tree kept in a pot – negative emissions

Solution?

The worst thing you could do is buy an artificial tree that is used for just one or two years (or longer if it is not recycled at the end). Second to that is to buy a real tree every year that goes to landfill.

If you have an artificial tree, continue to use it as long as possible. If you really want an artificial one but don’t currently have one, then buy one second hand. At the end of its life, try to find a way it can be recycled.

If you are buying a real tree, your ideal option is to choose locally grown and potted. Keep in your garden and reuse it each year for as long as you can. If you don’t have garden space or cant get one potted, then make sure it is recycled after Christmas into compost, or bark chippings. If it can’t be recycled, then offer it to someone who has a log burner, or provide it to your council for burning.

An even simpler option… don’t have a tree! Or just decorate a plant or tree you already have growing in the garden. Most importantly, whatever option you go for, don’t forget to enjoy Christmas. Every step you make towards becoming greener really does make a difference – you don’t have to be perfect.

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