For so many people, bringing home a Christmas tree marks the beginning of the festive season. It's quite literally the centrepiece of the holiday. However, with concerns about sustainability growing year on year, a lot of us will be wondering, is a real or fake Christmas tree better for the environment? While Christmas may be the time for mistletoe and mulled wine, it’s also good to think about whether there are any little changes you can make to ensure you’re being as eco-conscious as possible at this time of year.
Speaking to the BBC in December 2016, Dr John Kazer from the Carbon Trust revealed that a two-metre artificial Christmas tree has a carbon footprint equivalent to 40kg of greenhouse gas emissions due to the way in which it is manufactured (fake trees are most often made from plastic). That is more than twice that of a real tree that ends its life in landfill, Kazer says, and more than ten times that of a real tree that is burnt.
"So if you have an artificial tree at home you would need to reuse it for at least 10 Christmases to keep its environmental impact lower than that of a real tree," Kazer told the BBC.
Friends of the Earth Campaigner Emi Murphy tells me, "If you've got a fake tree already, keep using it — make it last as long as possible. But look into a more environmentally-sound option when it eventually comes to replacing it."
Murphy continues: "Real trees may seem an obvious solution, but if you’re only using it for one Christmas, it can have a big impact when you think about the land use to grow it and the emissions from transport."
Speaking about real trees, Kazer pointed out to the BBC that the way in which they are disposed of is "much more significant than where it comes from." He continued: "If you burn your Christmas tree on the bonfire, plant it or have it chipped to spread on the garden, that significantly reduces the carbon footprint by up to 80% or around 3.5kg CO2e (greenhouse gas emissions)."
If you want to be as environmentally conscious as possible with your tree, Murphy from Friends of the Earth says, you could consider growing your own. "Buying a potted tree with roots lets you grow it outside and use it again year after year, reducing its environmental impact and costing you less," she says. "A living tree will carry on absorbing carbon from the atmosphere for years to come." Nurturing a tree year after year is also a pretty cute family Christmas tradition.
You don’t need a massive garden to grow your own tree, either. Murphy suggests: “Potted trees like holly are good options and can be placed on a small balcony or outdoor space.”
You can still enjoy this time of year while also being eco-conscious, Murphy says. "Just making slightly different choices around decorations, food, gifts and travel can really cut down on the impact your festivities have," she explains. It’s not about completely changing your Christmas Day traditions but making slight adaptations to be more sustainable. As well as getting a real tree Friends of the Earth suggest you consider buying local and organic food to go on your festive tables, resist buying cheap, flimsy plastic baubles and tinsel, and think about what experiences your family might want you to pay for instead of material gifts.