What is more sustainable – a plastic, or a natural, Christmas tree?
A question that comes up time and time again during the holiday season is related to Christmas trees, and which type of tree is the most sustainable, a real actual tree – or a fake? We’re going to take a look at the impact of the different options today, but before we do so, let’s talk about where the tradition of Christmas trees comes from.
Bringing trees inside has been an essential part of seasonal décor since ancient times, and began as a part of pagan winter solstice celebrations, where the tree symbolized overcoming death and darkness in the winter.
Historians have had a hard time actually pinpointing the origins of this tradition as many countries claim to be the birthplace of the Christmas tree. However, most seem to agree on the notion that the tradition had its origin somewhere in northern Europe where evergreen forests were, and are, abundant. Latvia traces its traditions of Christmas trees back to 1510, and Estonia sees evidence of origin around 1441. There is also evidence of early traditions in 1539 in Germany. Anyway, by the 18th century, Christmas trees were all over Europe, and from there the tradition spread. Interestingly, despite its ties and associations to the Christian holiday, many historians agree that the symbol of the Christmas tree was intended to be religiously neutral.
Today, approximately 8 million Christmas trees are sold each year in the UK. While in the U.S., 2018 saw the sale of 32.8 million real trees and 23.6 artificial ones, and the interest in sustainable options has grown exponentially over the last few years. So let’s take a look at the impact.
On average it takes a 2 meter tall Christmas tree 10 years to grow. Once the tree is cut down a new seed takes its place. Christmas trees are grown as a horticultural crop and aren’t felled from pre-existing forests. They are very rarely, as in almost never, harvested from wild forests, but rather from plantations and fields designed to grow them. It is therefore very unlikely that your Christmas tree will have contributed to deforestation or the destruction of natural wild areas – it is, however, way more likely that the meat consumed during the holidays will have had that effect, but I digress.
In the US, there are about 15,000 farms that grow Christmas trees, and 79 percent of the annual harvest — comes from Oregon and North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and most farmers grew trees on 10 acres or less. The big impact of Christmas trees in the US is the pesticide use, as well as the air travel, as most Christmas trees are actually helicopters out to avoid them being damaged. Several European types of trees, like the Normann are naturally resistant to pests, these trees are gradually being introduced to the US market as well.
There is of course an impact in terms of transportation, which accounts for the largest portion of the impact. Because many Christmas trees are grown in colder climates, but then shipped out to the rest of the world.
Also, another place where the Christmas trees have a big impact is during disposal. Spending 10 years growing a tree, to simply throw it into landfill? No thanks. So if you’re having a tree, finding ways to repurpose it, or compost it will actually lighten its impact.
According to The Carbon Trust, a natural two-meter Christmas tree that does not have roots and is disposed of into a landfill after Christmas produces a carbon footprint of around 16kg of CO2. While a tree of the same size that’s then properly disposed of, either by turning it into firewood, replanting it, chipping it, or composting it, has a carbon footprint of 3.5kg of CO2.
I do really want to add here btw, that when it comes to plants with big impacts, the Christmas tree is not in the heavy end. For instance, one 2-meter tall Christmas tree has the same impact as 5 roses grown in a greenhouse. So actually opting for a real tree for Christmas, but skipping the flowers later for Valentine would have a much bigger impact, than vice versa.
Alternatively, if you have the climate for it, growing a tree in your garden, repotting it for Christmas, and then replanting it after the season is also an option. OR you can consider getting in a Norfolk Island pine, which thrives indoors all year and then simply decorates during the holiday season.
According to The Carbon Trust, on the other hand, a two-meter Christmas tree made from plastic has a carbon footprint measuring around 40kg of CO2, more than 10 times greater than a properly disposed of real tree.
The research conducted by Ellipsos and the American Christmas Tree Association – both using comparative life cycle approaches – found that real trees generate less greenhouse gas emissions per Holiday season than artificial ones, but that this changes the longer your artificial tree is around for because the emissions are divided over many years. Actually, an artificial tree will need to be in circulation for at least 8 years, and ideally 20 years to make up its initial carbon footprint.
When it comes to fake trees, the best option is to buy a quality product that will be able to last for these 8+ years, and not opt for the cheapest option available. But no matter what, of course taking care of it and repairing it if it breaks, is the way to go.
There is not a one-size-fits-all, for what the most sustainable option is, it depends on your traditions, where you live, etc. For people in colder climates buying a real tree that’s been growing locally is an awesome idea (especially if it is composted after the fact), but if you live in a warmer climate importing a tree from halfway around the world is not necessarily a sustainable option. Here it could be better to look for more long-lasting alternatives that can be used year after year.
Of course, this issue all comes back to circularity, and reusability, how we can take care of the materials we require, rather than quickly discarding them and replacing them, needless to say, this goes for all solutions.
WHAT I DO:
Now a little bit about what I have chosen, in case that helps. I live in Denmark, which means I can get fairly low-impact Christmas trees, however, a couple of years ago I found a reusable tree in a second-hand shop, and that’s what I use now. It is not plastic, not all reusable/fake trees have to be plastic. Instead, it is made from wood. Now, this has already been in circulation for a while, it’s a second-hand tree, and I honestly like it better for my home.