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Which type of Christmas tree is best for the environment?

Posted by Sam Tonge on 18 December 2017 at 9:30 am

The YouGen Team are getting into the festive spirit here at the National Energy Foundation as we count down the days until we can put our feet up (and recharge our own personal energy levels) over the holiday period! In the seasonal tradition of giving and receiving, we would like to share with you the typical life cycle of a natural or ‘real’ Christmas tree compared to that of an artificial or ‘fake’ tree.

With over 100 million Christmas trees being sold across Europe and North America each year, we look at the various ways in which we can all make sure that this centre point within our living rooms treads lightly on the planet’s surface throughout its life cycle.

 

Sourcing

We can start by thinking about where real Christmas trees originate. Cutting down a real tree each year in many cases can be considered as more environmentally-friendly than buying a fake tree. This is because a real tree is grown on plantations over a period of 5-10 years which not only absorbs greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide but also provides habitat for wildlife and contributes to the local economy through employment. It’s also worth bearing in mind that for each Christmas tree cut down, a new one is planted in its place for subsequent years, with a single farmed tree absorbing over one ton of CO2 throughout its lifetime.

In contrast, an artificial tree is likely to be made of PVC, a non-biodegradable plastic derived from petroleum. Older trees can often contain metals such as traces of lead which acts as a stabiliser. This may be surprising to you if you’ve always considered investing in a fake tree as an act of environmental goodwill.

 

Transportation

Real Christmas trees are grown in plantations across the UK, meaning their distribution to our homes contributes far less in carbon miles compared to artificial trees, which are often manufactured in far-flung corners of the globe and require international transportation via our airways and oceans. A typical artificial tree can have a carbon footprint of approximately 40kg of greenhouse gas emissions as a result of its transportation. Although you may have to drive a particular distance to your nearest tree plantation, this is considerably smaller in terms of journey time and carbon intensity.  

 

Whilst in your home

Real trees can provide what some describe as a nice feel and an irreplaceable authenticity, with the whole experience of going out, selecting a tree and decorating it a cornerstone of the Christmas experience.

However it’s worth pointing out artificial trees hold a number of advantages when it comes to their use in the home. This includes their sheer convenience and ease of packing, with assembling and dismantling the tree each year achieved through connected parts and ready-made cardboard boxes. Artificial trees are also generally fire resistant and can offer a good bill of health over the festive period to those who would suffer from allergies from real trees. Real trees are renowned for their flammability once they’ve dried out and can also harbour insects as well as being quite a pain to clean up after once the needles begin to fall off.  

Either way, remember to use LED lights on your Christmas decorations wherever possible!

 

Its eventual disposal

The disposal of a Christmas tree is fundamental to determining its environmental sustainability, perhaps even more so than its origin.

A real tree can be replanted if potted correctly and well-maintained throughout the Christmas period. Initial uprooting when you cut down the tree breaks a number of tree roots; however in some cases you may successfully revive the tree by replanting it.

The next best option for real trees is to recycle them for use as wood chips which can be used as fuel for biomass boilers or even as fertiliser. The use of wood chips can be wide-ranging and extends to use in habitat restoration projects or beach-front erosion prevention schemes.

This continued use of waste product through burning or recycling significantly reduces the carbon footprint of a real tree by up to 80%. Compare this to an artificial tree, which is generally not recyclable, meaning its sustainability will be largely determined by how many years you are able to re-use it for. On average, a fake tree will be used for five to seven Christmases, with their eventual disposal meaning they sit within landfill (potentially for hundreds of years).

 

So there you have it - the typical life cycle of your Christmas tree. With both sides presenting strong cases, it is difficult to find one right answer to which type of tree is the most sustainable. The key to making a decision will rest on what you feel is a priority when decorating your home. Whether it’s the environment, family tradition or just the Christmas feel-good factor, balancing each of these can appear a daunting task. The environmental sustainability does not depend just on the type of tree itself, but also how you use it.

On behalf of everyone here at YouGen, thanks for being a part of our membership community and we would like to wish you all a wonderful Christmas and New Year.

 

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Sources

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-38129835

https://earth911.com/home-garden/real-vs-artificial-christmas-trees/

https://www.fbd.ie/CreativeContentHub/christmas-tree-life-cycle/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/10/the-eco-guide-to-christmas-trees

https://www.theverge.com/science/2017/12/8/16720456/christmas-tree-environment-plastic-carbon-footprint-climate-change

 

About the author: Sam joined YouGen in 2017 as a Project Officer, after having achieved a BSc (Hons) degree in Geography from Royal Holloway, University of London. 

He is passionate about renewable energy and sustainability and has undertaken a variety of placements focused in these areas. 

Sam coordinates the YouGen blog, newsletter and recommendation service on behalf of installers. He enjoys providing customer service to website visitors as well as processing membership queries. 

If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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Comments

4 comments - read them below or add one

bklvr

bklvrComment left on: 20 December 2017 at 9:28 pm

The facts in your comment are very useful BenRob, thank you.  I'm not advocating artificial over natural, just pointing out that the benefits of intensively farmed Xmas trees are not quite as presented in the original article.  Andy's comment is very helpful and provides a much greener solution.

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Andy in Hawick

Andy in HawickComment left on: 20 December 2017 at 8:45 pm

So … if you already have an artificial tree; keep using it as long as possible, prefereably beyond ten years and when it is time to get rid of it, at least recycle the metal content.

If you don't already have an artificial tree stashed away, find a small, local, organically grown tree, preferably with roots so that you can plant it up.

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BenRob

BenRobComment left on: 20 December 2017 at 3:26 pm

I disagree with bklvr. When looking at a life cycle analysis of Christmas trees,  the carbon footprint of an artificial tree is roughly 12 time greater than that of a real one. However this is ultimately dependent upon how the tree is got rid of once the festivities are complete. If the tree is burned then the carbon emitted is roughly equal to the amount stored while the tree is growing, resulting in no net increase. This gives a real tree approximately 2m tall a carbon footprint of around 3.5kg.

However this increases to 18kg if the tree is disposed of in landfill, as the tree emits methane, a greenhouse gas 25x more potent than CO2. This is compared to a carbon footprint of around 40kg for an artificial tree, as they are often comprised of metal and PVC, a petroleum derived plastic. These materials are also non-recyclable and non-biodegradable, meaning they will sit in a landfill for hundreds of years after disposal. The lifespan of an artificial  tree is roughly 5-7 years, meaning it is unlikely to prove a more environmentally friendly method.

With regard to issues surrounding the ecosystems local to the farms, it is difficult to determine the level of impact on a tree-by-tree basis. However When the destructive impacts from metal mining and mining for oil, the base of PVC, I feel it is unlikely that the local impact of a natural tree would be greater than that of an artificial tree, even before transport is taken into account. 

Ultimately the best environmental solution to the whole Christmas tree debacle would be to use a potted tree that is replanted after the christmas season, however due to space requirements this isn't possible for everyone.  

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bklvr

bklvrComment left on: 20 December 2017 at 2:04 pm

I think your article oversimplifies the issues of the 'natural' xmas tree industry.  The plantations are actually large areas of monocultural agriculture, intensively farmed using herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers.  I live near one and see also that surrounding streams and rivers have very low levels of fish, birds and wildlife.  The varieties of trees grown are very recent imports, not native (before the 16th century only Yew and Scots Pine were native evergreen tall trees to Britain) and so support little or no wildlife.

Some may not travel far for retail sales but there is a market in E Europe (yes, really) for Scottish trees; they are seen as prestigious and many are transported abroad.

An articial tree may be full of chemicals but so are the grown ones and becuase the land used to grow them is articially acidified, it is unfit for many crops for years afterwards unless again very heavily treated.

There's little 'natural' about a real Xmas tree.  More research please Yougen!

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