Real vs artificial: Which Christmas tree is more sustainable?


The real versus fake Christmas tree debate heats up as the holiday season is upon us. While there are several arguments to be made on both sides, the answer largely depends on how the tree is used and disposed of.

Basics: What is carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of an individual, organisation, or community. Each product has an associated carbon cost which can increase a carbon footprint. Carbon cost is measured through the greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. carbon, methane) from the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing disposal.

Real tree

Real Christmas trees have a carbon cost that comes mostly from distribution and disposal. To boost your sustainability credentials, Mike Childs, head of research at Friends of the Earth suggests, “Locally grown real trees are the best option if you can get one”.

After all the mince pies are eaten, it is time to remove the tree from your home to free up space. Fortunately, there are many options from landfill, burning, to turning the tree to wood chips to be used as fertiliser for gardens.

When trees are sent to landfill, they are buried under other material. As this space has little oxygen, it creates the perfect environment for the type of bacteria that decompose the tree to in turn produce methane. Each methane molecule expelled has 25 times the global warming potential as a single molecule of carbon dioxide, making it the least sustainable option.

If you’re looking to create a cold snow-filled Christmas next year then experts recommend choosing to either burn your tree or convert it to wood chippings to be scattered in the garden. These methods produce 80% less carbon dioxide equivalent emissions compared to landfill.

Artificial vs real table figures
Source: Carbon Trust. Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) is the standard unit of measuring carbon dioxide footprint.

Artificial tree

Artificial trees are made from oil-based plastics, with the carbon cost coming mostly from manufacturing and distribution. As most of these trees are manufactured in China, there are not many options to purchase locally for those living in Europe.

Artificial trees contribute to a staggering 40KgCO2e. However, unlike most real trees, artificial trees can be used multiple times. If used more than 10 times, an artificial tree contributes less carbon dioxide equivalent emissions compared to a real tree disposed of using the most sustainable methods.

Verdict

“A real pine or fir tree naturally absorbs CO2 and releases oxygen. The best thing you can do at Christmas is keep a tree alive and breathing. Disposing of a tree by composting produces CO2 and methane. An artificial tree has a higher carbon footprint than a natural one because of the energy intensive production processes involved. By far the best option is a potted tree which, with care, can be replanted after the festive season and re-used year after year.”

Darran Messem

Managing Director of Certification, Carbon Trust

In simple terms, if you want to be a true sustainability warrior, the best option is to have a Christmas tree in your garden which you annually pot for the Christmas period and then replant once the festivities are over.

Following that are options to dispose of natural trees with sustainable methods and then, keeping storage space and time commitment in mind, reuse an artificial one for as many years as possible.

Explore more ideas for a sustainable Christmas, with free activities and Ocean Plastics resources for ages 5-14.

Reference: https://www.carbontrust.com/news/2013/01/christmas-tree-disposal-advice/

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