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Real Christmas tree or artificial Christmas tree? Your environmental guide to the December dilemma

Here's what you need to know to make the right choice this Christmas.

Volunteers unload collected Christmas trees before at Kentish Town City Farm in north London on January 7, 2022, where they will be used for the farm's goats to feed on.

Volunteers unload collected Christmas trees before at Kentish Town City Farm in north London in January 2022, where they will be used for the farm's goats to feed on. (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s December, so it’s officially Christmas. Unless you’re someone who starts planning the festivities in July, it’s likely that you’ll be looking at buying a tree, decorating the house, getting presents, and deciding what’s on the menu for Christmas dinner.

More and more people are also looking at how to have a sustainable Christmas and lessen the environmental impact of the festive period. And we can still have a great Christmas while factoring in some eco-friendly choices, particularly when it comes to getting a tree, a staple of almost everyone’s Christmas.

Millions of real trees are thrown away after Christmas every year in the UK and each one could have a carbon footprint of more than 15kg of CO2, according to the Carbon Trust, the same as a day of natural gas power in an average home. 

So many people opt instead for a plastic tree, which can be kept for several years, as many believe that it is greener to buy a real Christmas tree. But, are artificial trees actually better for the environment than real trees?

Real Christmas trees: Benefits and drawbacks

Some people just love real Christmas trees. And why wouldn’t you? There’s nothing quite like the aroma of pine that greets you as soon as you open the door after a cold and wintry day. 

According to the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, six to eight million real Christmas trees are sold in the UK each year.

But, for those who are environmentally conscious, it may be worth considering the impact of cutting down so many for — at most — a month of displaying one at home before throwing it out.

Here are the facts you need to know.

How long do real Christmas trees survive?

Real Christmas trees that are not potted can only last a maximum of six weeks with proper care and watering. 

What is the carbon footprint of a real Christmas tree?

There are different ways of disposing of a tree that will have an impact on its carbon footprint, the Carbon Trust has said

When a two-metre tree without roots ends up in a landfill, for instance, it has a carbon footprint equivalent to 16 kg of carbon dioxide. This is largely from the methane it emits as it rots, which is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Burning a tree on a bonfire will have a smaller carbon footprint as the carbon it emits while burning is the same as it had absorbed when it was alive, so there is no net increase. 

Are there other alternatives for people who want a real tree?

Instead of buying a real tree every year and wondering what to do with it after Christmas is over, you can rent a tree.

Renting a Christmas tree gives you all of the benefits of a real tree but you don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen to it in the new year. Tree rental companies are becoming increasingly popular, as companies offer delivery and pick-up services for their local areas. 

These companies then care for the tree throughout the year and ensure that it can be reused next Christmas.

There are also companies that plant at least one or more trees for each Christmas tree sold, and only source British trees to ensure they minimise emissions from transport and offset any that are produced to be carbon neutral.

Why is keeping your Christmas tree a good idea?

If you have a garden with enough space, you could opt to replant your tree. Replanting a Christmas tree can reduce its carbon footprint by up to 80 per cent and ensure you have a tree in the coming years.

Alternatively, you can buy a tree that is already potted and has kept its roots. The Carbon Trust states that a potted tree will be easier to replant and keep for reuse in the future. 

This would spread the carbon footprint of the tree over several years. 

What else can you do with your Christmas tree?

Instead of throwing out your Christmas tree, you could recycle it. Local councils often have facilities that enable residents to recycle their Christmas trees to be used for chippings or soil – you can find out whether your council offers this service here.

This can reduce the carbon footprint of the Christmas tree’s disposal by up to 80 per cent.

Do real Christmas trees clean the air?

The popularity of Christmas trees among Britons means that there are hundreds of thousands growing in the UK each year, particularly as people are becoming more interested in buying locally-grown trees.

All trees absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, and Christmas trees are no different. But disposing of it produces carbon dioxide so it is important to pick the right method to make it carbon neutral or negative.

Artificial Christmas trees: Benefits and drawbacks

Artificial Christmas trees are made of plastic, which is a major contributor to landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions. 

What is the carbon footprint of an artificial tree?

The Carbon Trust states that an average artificial Christmas tree produces around 40 kg of greenhouse gas emissions if you take into account the manufacturing, packaging, transport, and materials used in the tree. 

Its footprint is over ten times that of a single real tree that is recycled or replanted.

What is the average lifespan of an artificial Christmas tree?

Artificial trees can usually be kept in rotation for twenty years, barring any unlucky accidents at home. The Carbon Trust suggests using it for at least seven years for it to make a difference to your carbon footprint, compared to buying a real tree each year.

Artificial trees are also cheaper in the long-run than a real tree, if you are able to keep them stored in a safe place throughout the year and prevent it from being damaged.

What do you do with an artificial tree once you’re done with it?

Unfortunately, artificial trees cannot be recycled. However, if you’re done with the tree and it is still in decent condition, you could donate it to a charity shop or a local group so another family can make use of it.

Also, you could cut it up for foliage decoration to use around the house next year or even some scrapbooking if you’re an arty sort of person.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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