How Green is Your Christmas Tree?

11 December, 2021 | Rachel Brooks
Categories: Climate Change

This Christmas, should you get a real or artificial Christmas tree? We look at the environmental impacts of both to answer this age old, ultimate eco conundrum!

If, like nearly 80% of Brits, you’ll be putting up a Christmas tree this year, you might find yourself stumped at all the options. How big? Tall or wide? Cut or potted? Or perhaps the ultimate question: real or artificial? Many people are drawn to the attraction of artificial trees for the simple fact a one-off investment yields returns for years to come – and saves the time and hassle of the annual trek down to the garden centre. Others pine for the real thing – nothing beats the nose-tingling, Christmas-encapsulating scent of a fresh fir.

But with the Climate Emergency fresh on many people’s minds, and amidst an upwelling of public concern for other environmental disasters like plastic pollution, choosing a Christmas tree can be an environmental conundrum. Artificial trees are made predominantly from plastic – a material of growing notoriety for its role in littering our landscape, filling our landfills, leaching into our waterways, killing fish and seabirds, even finding its way into our blood, disrupting our endocrine systems and fertility. So is it better to avoid the plastic pine and opt for a tree crafted by Mother Nature herself? But what about the environmental impact of growing, fertilizing, chopping down and then shipping trees all around the country – or continent – all for the sake of a few weeks, before chucking out your now dead tree to be composted, or worse, burnt or landfilled? That doesn’t seem like the perfect system, either.

Can science solve this debate once and for all? Which choice – real or artificial – can truly claim the environmentalist’s gold star of approval? The strongest tool in the environmentalist’s arsenal for answering such a question is to perform a comparative Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) on the two options, so let’s take a look at what the top LCA studies on the topic have to say.

Explainer: During the LCA process, the products (in this case, our competing Christmas trees) must first be understood in terms of their raw materials, stages of manufacture, distribution, use and eventually disposal. The more detail, the more accurate the analysis, as even the tiniest details all add up. Once this has been mapped out in sufficient detail, each stage is analysed for its environmental impacts. Given that the environment is a complex, dynamic system, it’s impossible to capture these impacts in a single metric – so our analyst must decide how many impact categories to assess [left]. The single most common category is Climate Change (a reflection of the global warming potential of all emissions). Other categories include resource depletion, eutrophication, eco toxicity and various others (but not all LCAs include all impact categories). One limitation of LCAs is that it is perfectly possible for one of the products to fare well in some categories, and poorly in others, whilst the competing product fares well or poorly in totally different categories, making the job of comparison bewilderingly unclear.  

The good news is that, according to LCA results, depending on the exact choices you make, both sides can potentially claim victory. Here are some of the key findings- and nuances:

Real trees can be shown to be the most environmentally friendly option, but crucially, only so long as:
  • They are grown locally, and have not accrued significant shipping or land miles prior to purchase. This is, of course, because of the emissions (contributing to climate change, ecotoxicity and smog formation) associated with transport. This means that the greater the distance your tree has travelled to get to you, the lower its environmental performance is likely to be. Artificial trees typically stumble at this block, given that China manufactures and exports vast majority of the world’s fake trees!
  • At the end of their life, you must ensure they are composted – not chucked on the bonfire, incinerated or sent to landfill. This is because the carbon savings accrued during their life are immediately re-emitted into the atmosphere as CO2 during combustion, or in the case of landfill, worse still – as methane, whereas composting allows much of the carbon to be returned to the soil. This is the single most important factor in determining the environmental impact of a real tree!  

Factors which favour the environmental credentials of the real tree include:

Real trees are even better IF:

  • You purchase a potted tree, ideally grown in the pot (rather than uprooted) so that the entire root ball is intact. This makes it more likely that the tree can survive in its pot (or planted on) for many years to come.
  • You rent a tree from a nursery. This option is rather uncommon, but has the advantage that your living tree will receive professional care over the next year, returning to full health prior to be rented out to another doting family the following year.
  • You choose a tree that was grown organically. This is not considered as an LCA parameter, and so we can’t tout any specific environmental benefits of this, but from a family health perspective, buying organic lowers your family’s exposure to harmful herbicides and pesticides.

The story does not end there, however, and indeed there is considerable solace for proponents of artificial trees. In fact –

Artificial trees can be superior if:
  • They are reused for as many years as possible. There is no hard and fast number for how many years this should be, but, based on the results of various LCAs and the exact specs of your tree, ranges from between five and twenty years. Just to be safe – longer is better, and should you need to dispose of your tree, try to rehome it rather than chucking it in the trash.
  • When the time does come to dispose of the tree once and for all, ensure that it is recycled, rather than sent to landfill or incinerated. Recycling may consume energy, but typically less than manufacturing new plastic products from scratch. On the other hand, plastic sent to landfill is liable to degrade into harmful substances, such as microplastics, while the typical plastics used in artificial trees can release harmful gases such as dioxins when incinerated or burned.

There are some other considerations that can help your artificial tree’s environmental performance, such as:

  • Ensuring it is simply constructed, and made of recyclable materials. Very complex structures may be impossible to dismantle into the separate different material fractions required for recycling.
  • Ensuring it does not contain certain harmful plastics, such as PVC or BPA. These can release harmful gases into the air (and your lungs) both during and at the end of their lifetime.
  • Being made of recycled materials also lowers the environmental footprint significantly.

Ultimately, both real and artificial Christmas trees do have an environmental impact. The take home message for those putting up their trees this year is that if you already have an artificial tree, you should keep using that for as many years as you can; but if you do opt for real, you should select one that was grown as locally as possible – or consider renting one, if that option is available. If you’re looking to buy a new artificial tree, again, look for those produced close to your country, and more importantly, try to steer clear of those containing PVC or BPA. Better still, find one made of recycled materials.

Want to read on? Check out the LCAs referenced in this article:

  1. The American Christmas Tree Association (2018)
  2. Elipsos, Montreal (2008)