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12 Days of Wild: Is it Fake? - Real vs Artificial Christmas Trees and Sustainable Options

To kick off 12 Days of Wild, Emma Ralph discusses environmental impacts of Christmas trees and offers some sustainable options to consider this festive season. 

With every festive season comes the debate on whether a real or artificial tree is more eco-conscious and sustainable, and there are lots of things to consider when purchasing a tree this winter. The British Christmas Tree Growers Association estimates that every year, 6 to 8 million Christmas trees are purchased in the UK alone, though recent statistics suggest half of these may be artificial trees. There are advantages to both types of trees, and methods to ensure their sustainability, so often the best choice depends on an individual's circumstances.

A real Christmas tree compared to an artificial Christmas tree. Left image: cottonbro from Pexels; Right image: Yan Krukov from Pexels 

According to The Carbon Trust, an artificial Christmas tree can be reused between 7 and 20 times. This long lifespan can certainly make faux trees more economical than purchasing a new tree each year. In fact, if the tree is used for over 12 years, the carbon footprint becomes smaller than that for a real one! Artificial trees are convenient and low maintenance, and could be a great option for many Christmases to come so long as they are used responsibly by lengthening the utility of one tree. 

Unfortunately, it is estimated that artificial trees are only reused for four years. They also tend to be mass produced in China and made from plastics, which generate high carbon dioxide emissions in disposal, when not recycled properly. Their limited reuse and environmental impact from overseas shipping can greatly reduce the sustainability of an artificial tree.

On the other hand, real Christmas trees are often more popular, giving a sense of a traditional Christmas, and can even be quite environmentally friendly options! Carbon Trust suggests that, when disposed of properly, a real tree produces 3.5kg of carbon dioxide which is 10 times less than an artificial tree. They require around 10 years to grow to their popular 6 foot height, which allows them to sequester carbon, provide habitats and minimise soil erosion throughout their lifetime. 

Christmas trees are also grown in a rotating cycle, ensuring constant habitats - not contributing to any deforestation. This is guaranteed by the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, who state that another seedling is planted with every tree cut down, ensuring many trees for holidays to come! 

When it comes to buying a real Christmas tree, there are different actions to take to ensure your Christmas is as sustainable as possible. Firstly, it is important to buy a tree locally to reduce the tree's mileage and carbon footprint. Then, if possible, check that the tree has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, as it will have been grown in a sustainable manner. This means that the FSC ensures conservation and mitigates negative environmental impacts, by increasing forest management through environmental impact assessments and maintaining veteran trees.

There are also different forms of trees to consider when buying a living Christmas tree. The most common are trees cut from the soil without roots, and trees grown inside a flowerpot. Both can be sustainable but it is dependent on their disposal after the festive period. A tree without roots could be burnt to avoid ending up in a landfill as when it decomposes, it increases the carbon footprint from 3.5kg to 16kg and even produces methane gas. 

Most local councils offer a collection service for living Christmas trees after the festive season, to ensure your tree is correctly and sustainably recycled. Recycling a live tree can further benefit the environment as the chippings can be used as mulch, which improves soil drainage, insulation and even prevents weeds from growing.

A potted Christmas tree is another eco friendly option, as they can grow throughout the year. By keeping the tree alive after the holidays, it can continue to absorb carbon dioxide and be reused the following year! To make the most out of your potted Christmas tree, Patch Plants suggest keeping the tree away from radiators, and near a window. They also need sufficient drainage and watering, much like any other houseplant! After the holidays, you can bring your tree outside during the day and back in at night to acclimatise the transition. 

Examples of potted Christmas trees. Left image: Karolina Grabowska from Pexels; Right image: Lina Kivaka from Pexels

Potted Christmas trees are the most sustainable choice when buying a tree this winter but this does not negate the other options completely, especially if looking after a live plant all year isn’t quite up your street. Other real Christmas trees are sustainable and can be made even more so by choosing certified, local trees and ensuring your council has a collection system for proper recycling. 

However, those who already have an artificial tree do not need to buy a new one! They should make the most of its long wearability and stretch its use over many years, to make it as much of a sustainable choice as possible.

Overall, there are numerous ways to make each option more sustainable, so whichever suits you best this season, it is important to consider the environment as well as your wish list!

About the author: Emma Ralph is an Environment and Economics student at the University of York. She has a keen interest in wildlife and sustainability and she would love to volunteer in different conservation programmes abroad. 

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