How Green is your Christmas Tree?
In an attempt to dispel the gloom of the winter lockdowns, many people are putting up their Christmas decorations early this year. What sort of Christmas tree do you have? Is it a real tree or an artificial one – and which is better for the environment? The answer, of course is not straightforward.
Both real and artificial trees look stunning when decorated.
Real trees smell wonderful and give an authentic feel to your decorations, though they can drop their needles in hot rooms. Some types are more resistant to needle loss, such as the Nordmann Fir variety, Abies Nordmanniana.
Artificial ones usually have a more regular shape and are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes. They have no aroma, but they don’t drop needles.
Image from The Christmas Forest, Aug 1019
What is the carbon footprint of real versus artificial trees?
Real trees have a much lower carbon footprint on a year to year basis, especially if bought locally from a sustainable source. The idea of cutting down trees may not seem very environmentally friendly, but they are grown as a horticultural crop and new seeds are planted when the trees are cut down. There is an increasing number of Christmas tree growers across the country registered with the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, where trees are grown to guidelines governing sustainable cultivation. Look also for the ESC (Environmental Sustainability Certification) logo, or a Soil Association organic certificate which means that no pesticides have been used during growing.
You can choose a tree with roots if you have room to plant it outside after Christmas, so that you can use it again the following year. You will have to take good care of it, though, as this is not always a success. If successful, planted trees can become very big!
Artificial trees are made of plastic materials. They are often made in China, shipped to the UK in containers, and then transported to the retailers. This results in large emissions of carbon dioxide from the fuels used. Making the plastic needed is energy intensive and uses petroleum. But, if you use the same artificial tree for about 10 years or more, it can have a lower environmental impact than getting a new real tree every year.
Artificial trees can be the more sensible option for people living in small houses and flats, particularly the elderly, as they come in a variety of small sizes and are easy to put up each year.
If you are buying a new artificial tree, keep it simple and avoid pre-lit and pre-decorated trees.
Disposing of your tree after Christmas
Many councils and garden centres accept real trees. Bradford and Leeds councils advise people to take their trees to the local household waste recycling centre or you can chop up your tree and place it in your garden waste bin (but be aware that the next collection may not be until the end of January). The returned trees are chopped and re-used as wood chippings or mulch to enrich soils. Of the millions of real trees in homes and offices across Britain last year, it is estimated that only about 10% were recycled. The rest went to landfill or incineration, which is a wasted opportunity to create useable biomass that would have provided nutrients for depleted soils.
An artificial tree is not recyclable and will languish in landfill for years and years, so the best thing is to hang onto it for as many years as possible. Incineration may be possible in some areas. Many charity shops accept artificial trees in good condition.