To tree or not to tree? Christmas and sustainability

By Natalie Bavis, Carbon Reduction Engineer at Tunley Engineering
Getting a Christmas tree is key to the spirit of the season, but it is also out of step with the climate crisis. Is getting an artificial one smarter?

Every year, the UK buys a whooping 6-8 million real Christmas trees to place our finest decorations on. Come January, almost as many trees are disposed of, resulting in tens of thousands of tonnes of waste. On top of this, 14% of people will also get rid of their artificial trees in favour of a shiny new one. Once again prompting the age-old question: which is more environmentally friendly, real or artificial Christmas trees?

To explore this fully, it’s necessary to dive into the underlying processes surrounding tree production, on both sides of the equation. For artificial trees, the puzzle seems a lot simpler. Plastics, made from oil, are woven and spun into the durable trees we know and love. Carbon emissions accrue at each stage of production – from oil extraction, refining, to plastics production, tree manufacture and transportation between the different steps, the energy requirements are intensive. Up until the point of decoration, the equivalent of 40kgs of carbon dioxide (kgCO2e) is produced for every tree. Add to this the disposal, or inability to dispose of, the plastic tree, and we have a real nightmare after Christmas on our hands.

In that case the solution is obvious; real, earth grown trees are clearly the way forward… right? Not quite.

At first glance real trees are much better, but the differences arise from the often-overlooked aspects. The typical Christmas tree can take a decade to grow to the desirable 6ft height. During this time, pesticides and fertilisers are often used to help them develop into the lush trees that catch the buyer’s eyes. Once they are grown, they’re chopped down, wrapped in plastic netting, and shipped to where they’re needed. Sometimes they’re also sprayed with additional chemicals to preserve or exemplify their beauty.

When it comes to the emissions for real trees, the devil is in the details. Trees grown in the UK will have lower transportation emissions. Growing standards vary from country to country, as do native pests and the resulting pesticide use. Some forests may be managed, whereas others may be cut down without regrowth efforts. Then, after the holiday period, disposal also plays a massive role. Trees that end up in landfill produce methane, and have net total emissions of 16kgCO2e, up to 80% higher than those that are burned or chipped (3.5kgCO2e). Though, real trees, even those that are cut and not potted, can be replanted to negate the emissions.

So, which is better then? The answer depends on the buyer. An artificial tree is a better choice for those who don’t want to put energy in each year. Buying real trees and sending them to landfill creates more emissions after 3 years than one fake tree reused for longer. Burned, chipped or replanted trees take much longer to run up the same emission ‘debt’ – 10 years, or more. Buyers looking to make better choices should check for FSC certified trees with the Grown in Britain stamp, and where possible, maintain the trees health to plant in the new year.

Hopefully this article inspires you to branch out next year and choose a tree that both makes you feel good and looks pine!

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