O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
Published: 07 Dec 2018

There is a buzz around Cedrec's offices at Clarity House. It is time to put the Christmas decorations out and, well, it's just a nice feeling. However, as we tend to do every year, a debate began about the environmental impact of artificial and real Christmas trees and whether one is better than the other.

So, we've done a little bit of research into it...

Real Christmas trees

There is a strong argument for "real trees are better for the environment", and that is absolutely true if the real tree you buy still has its roots and can be replanted after Christmas. Otherwise, there is a slight problem with its carbon footprint.

As we all know from our school science classes, trees naturally absorb carbon through photosynthesis and rather kindly produce clean oxygen which we can breathe. Which is fine whilst the tree is alive and planted in the soil. When the tree is cut down, basically severed from its roots, and used as a Christmas tree, we lose this environmental benefit as the tree eventually dies. When it dies, carbon is then released as part of the carbon cycle. A decomposing tree will also release methane, a prominent greenhouse gas which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

However, if we leave the roots on the tree (and look after it whilst it is in our homes), it can be replanted and the environmental benefits of a living tree can continue and the carbon footprint significantly reduced, providing it survives.

Looking at the actual tree production, those who mass produce fir trees for the Christmas market will use some energy in doing so, perhaps through mechanisation or transportation. Then, when it is ready to be transported to our homes, it is usually wrapped in a plastic mesh which, in recent times, is a bit of a no-go.

Then it comes to disposal. We've already mentioned that there is a negative environmental effect through the decomposition of a tree. It is estimated, though, that burning the tree or shredding it and spreading the chippings on your garden significantly reduces the carbon footprint, even up to around 80%. Burning the tree tends to release the carbon dioxide it stored whilst growing, so there technically would be no increase in carbon dioxide by doing so.

But, is it worse than an artificial tree?

Artificial Christmas trees

It goes without saying, we don't get the benefit of clean oxygen from an artificial tree. In fact, it can be quite the opposite.

Artificial trees are usually made through a combination of metal and plastic (commonly polyvinyl chloride, so we're told), in a factory, which requires energy to run and will emit different gases in the process. The trees are then packaged, usually in recyclable cardboard, which is better than a plastic mesh but still not great. It then has to be transported to whichever market it will appear on. This could mean an artificial tree made in China being transported all the way over to the UK. It may even make multiple trips in various directions as the tree passes through distributors and third parties at various points around the world.

Then the tree is put into action every December by the household which chose it. But small bits of plastic representing pine needles inevitably fall off. These are then commonly sucked up by a vacuum and disposed of via landfill where it will slowly break down, over many, many, many years.

Once it enjoys a few Christmases, an artificial tree will end up being disposed of, most likely ending up in a landfill, which is a huge problem. As most of us know, plastic does not break down too easily in a landfill!

The argument isn't looking too great for artificial trees at the moment.

But, if we're being honest, how many times are artificial trees actually changed? A quick poll in our office revealed that of those who have an artificial Christmas tree, only two people had owned one for less than 10 years, but that does not mean they will not be retained for many more years. Others had used the same tree for 10, 13, 19 and 20 years for example. One person was even re-using a second-hand tree!

That poll isn't exactly representative of an entire population, or scientific in any way, but it does indicate that artificial trees will last a while.

What about the carbon footprint

This is where it gets interesting. The carbon footprint of an artificial tree is already quite high before it is even made. The same cannot be said of a real tree.

According to the Carbon Trust, two-thirds of an artificial Christmas tree's carbon footprint is from the PVC used to make it. The next big impact on the carbon footprint comes from the emissions produced when manufacturing the tree. So, it is estimated that an artificial tree of around 2m in height has a carbon footprint of around 40kg of CO2e.

When it comes to real Christmas trees, the Carbon Trust estimates that for a 2m high tree with no roots, the carbon footprint is 16kg of CO2e. That figure also involves a tree going to landfill. However, if the real tree is burned or shredded afterwards, this can drop to as low as 3.5kg of CO2e.

However, as mentioned above, we use artificial trees time and time again, which actually spreads the carbon footprint out. Over to the Carbon Trust again, which estimates that an average artificial tree will have to be used for a minimum of 10 Christmases before its environmental impact becomes lower than that of a real tree.

So which is better?

Looking at a single year, buying a real Christmas tree and then burning or chipping it at the end of Christmas has a lower environmental impact than buying a new artificial tree... a much lower impact.

However, there are lots of different factors to consider. An artificial tree used for decades can begin to have a lower environmental impact than buying a real tree every year. That is, until the artificial tree has to be disposed of. Who knows, we may have come up with an environmentally sound way of disposing of artificial Christmas trees in 20 years time though.

So, in the end, it really does come down to preference!

There is, of course, an environmental case of not having a tree at all. We'll leave that one there though.