The Great Christmas Tree Debate

Is plastic the fantastic option, or should you keep it real? We investigate which tree type is better for the environment.

The Christmas tree is the centrepiece of the festive season – adorned with sparkling fairy lights, delicate baubles and carefully wrapped gifts placed beneath it – it’s no wonder so much emphasis is placed on them when December rolls around. But, what about when January hits and you’re finished with the tree? Unfortunately, around 6 million real Christmas trees will end up in landfill this year, according to waste management company Fresh Start (fswaste.co.uk). The methane these wasted trees will produce is said to have 25 times the potency of carbon dioxide – which is bad news for the planet.

But can plastic alternate trees ever be the better option given how difficult the material is to dispose of? While the manufacturing and shipping of artificial trees consumes a lot of energy – they’re commonly made in China, for example – they could be perceived as a more sustainable option, due to the fact you’ll use them year after year, unlike the real version.

While it can be tough to be an ethical consumer during such a period of excess – food buffets, gift-buying, decorations, packaging, and all the rubbish this generates as a result – one thing for certain is that this amount of superfluous waste cannot continue. So, do your bit by picking your tree wisely – here’s the case for both types.

Christmas-Tree

Pining for the real thing?

For many, there is nothing like a real tree – the gloriously festive pine scent, the joy of dedicating a Saturday afternoon to picking out the perfect one to fit in your front room, not to mention the release of fresh oxygen into your home. It’s the traditional choice and one that is backed by The Carbon Trust (carbontrust.com) who state that real trees are the better option for the environment, as you would need to get 10 years’ worth of Christmases out of an artificial tree to have lower carbon emissions than its real counterpart.

While the cutting down of such real trees may conjure images of deforestation – sadly a common part of modern society that’s ‘justified’ by the need to clear land for other purposes – Christmas trees are an ornamental crop that’s grown specifically for the festivities. This has quite the opposite effect of deforestation, as millions of Christmas trees are planted every year for this reason. It takes between eight to 12 years to grow a real Christmas tree and in that time, the tree is taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen – cleaning our heavily polluted air as a result. Put simply, if people didn’t buy real trees, farmers wouldn’t plant them. It’s this demand for them that benefits the planet as the more that are planted, the more oxygen that will be put into the environment. Just make sure your tree is grown locally to avoid the carbon footprint of importation from overseas. Head to forestryengland.uk where you can find real trees for sale near you that have been sustainably grown in the UK.

Christmas-Tree3

Guy Shrubsole, campaigner at Friends of the Earth (friendsoftheearth.uk) echoes this point and suggests opting for a potted Christmas tree: “We need to double UK tree cover as part of the fight against climate breakdown, and your Christmas tree can be part of this. Buying a potted tree with roots allows you to grow it outside and use it again year after year, reducing its environmental impact and costing you less. A living tree will also carry on absorbing carbon from the atmosphere for years to come.”

Guy also points out that while tree species such as spruce and pine are the traditional options, what’s to stop you from buying something a little different this year? “Any living tree will help absorb carbon emissions and provide habitat for animals, but imagine if everyone in the UK embraced some alternative tree options. That would mean a whole new forest – more biodiversity, and food and shelter for wildlife. Potted trees like apple, holly or yew are good options and can be placed on a small balcony or outdoor space, and then brought indoors during December for you to decorate. You might want to consider one that’s evergreen or perhaps one which will give you delicious fruit in the autumn.”
The only downfall for traditional trees is their disposal. WRAP (wrap.org.uk) estimates the weight of the real trees that are thrown away after Christmas is around 160,000 tonnes, but there are some ways to get rid of them without leaving too much of a carbon footprint.

For one, you can compost old Christmas trees – just make sure you strip the branches off and cut it down into small pieces. Ignore the misconception that composting pine needles creates acidic compost. By the time the needles are composted, they will have lost most of their acidic potency anyway.

If you don’t have a compost heap, recyclenow.com will shred your old tree into chippings which are then used locally in parks or woodland areas. Head to their website or get in touch with your local council to find more information and get your nearest drop off point.

You could even get creative and repurpose the tree for other things. Use a saw and cut your old Christmas tree trunk up into coasters, or make use of the festive scent of pine needles to make your own potpourri. If you don’t want parts of tree left in your home, take it outside and let it become a habitat for animals during the cold winter season. As long as it’s being reused somehow, there’s less waste produced as a result.

Christmas-Tree1

Feel like faking it?

Can the same be said for artificial trees? Whilst they may be predominately made from plastic, they have the ability to be reused year after year – which is the resourceful attitude we should take towards any items we purchase. Plus, they’re of course less messier and better for those with allergies.

If you do buy an artificial tree, don’t feel too guilty about it as there are some manufactures running schemes that help the planet.

Christmas Tree World (christmastreeworld.co.uk), for example, has joined forces with Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF, borneonaturefoundation.org) in a bid to help save the rainforest – so for every customer who buys an artificial Christmas tree, the brand ensures a new tree is planted in the Borneo rainforest. It is expected that up to 25,000 trees will be planted by Christmas Tree World in 2019 alone, which could see an area of over 50 hectares reforested.

Stephen Evans, owner of Christmas Tree World comments: “I’ve long advocated the afforestation of upland Britain to help with carbon capture but also prevent lowland flooding. The government are starting to understand this; however, UK agencies are more than capable of undertaking such a scheme, without any help from Christmas Tree World. It occurred to me that we could make a meaningful difference in the rainforest where there are many challenges, as the potential climate rewards were much greater.”

And in response to those who criticise the use of plastic, Steve says: “A high proportion of Christmas Tree World’s artificial trees have a steel frame and base, which is both robust and durable, lasting at least 15 years. We have a guarantee on our trees for 10 years, stocking a full range of spare parts in our warehouse for any repairs or missing parts. It’s single-use plastics that are damaging the environment – not plastic products which last longer than many cars. Even after 15 years, rather than disposing an artificial Christmas tree, it can be sent to a charity shop for others to get years of enjoyment out of it.”

Steve raises a good point. If you do want to purchase an artificial tree, why not extend the footprint of one that already exists by buying second-hand. Look on Freecycle (freecycle.org) or head to local charity shops to give an unwanted tree a new lease of life.

Further to this, who says artificial trees need to be made from plastic? Think outside of the box and consider a festive centrepiece that’s made from upcycled materials such as wood or recycled plastic. Not only is it kinder to the planet, but will make a unique addition to your seasonal décor. The online gift company, Not On The High Street (notonthehighstreet.com), have a variety of sellers producing wooden trees which are often handmade and from sustainably forested (FSC) sources. Homewares brand, Cox & Cox (coxandcox.co.uk), also have a range of alternative trees made from different materials such as metal, wires, wood and cotton. We recommend checking out their selection.

So whether you sit on the side of real or fake, there are sustainable options and ways of using both in a way that won’t harm the planet – all it takes is a little research. If you buy real, dispose of the tree in a responsible way and buy local. If fake is more your thing, buy from brands that give back to the planet or consider one that’s made from an alternate material to plastic. The only thing next to decide is what to put on top of the tree.

This article first appeared in Issue 10 of Be Kind magazine.