The tree is easily my favourite part of Christmas, and has been since childhood. Since I left home I’ve always had a small one in a pot, the second of which, having already done two Christmases, was doing really well up until about three weeks ago when two-thirds of it started to go brown. The time had come to replace it if I were to have a tree at all in my own home this year.
I’ve always preferred real trees to the artificial alternatives, partly because we always had a floor-to-ceiling Norway Spruce in our lounge when I was little. It smelled delicious and shed characteristically all over the presents every year. However a friend of mine suggested the better option for me now might be an artificial one, as I wouldn’t have to worry about nursing it through to next year, they never drop needles, and they are much better for the world than real ones (that aren’t in pots) as you keep re-using the same one instead of cutting down and disposing of a new tree every year.
I did feel a pang of guilt: Christmas is an incredibly wasteful time with 3 million extra tonnes of rubbish produced every year in the UK. Not everyone goes through their wrapping paper after the present-opening frenzy removing all the bows and sticky tape and separating the foil-backed paper from the plain in order to be able to successfully recycle. According to the British Christmas Tree Growers Association 8 million real trees are bought each year, which equates to 160,000 tonnes of waste if they all end up in landfill. But given that artificial trees are mostly made of plastic are they really a more environmentally-friendly option? If I did want a truly ‘green’ tree to replace my mostly-brown one, which one would be better in the long run?
The tradition of setting up a decorated tree in the home originated in Renaissance Germany. The custom spread throughout Europe during the 19th century, becoming widespread in Britain after Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert. Germany also came up with the first artificial trees in the 1880s: wire frames supporting dyed goose feather ‘branches’. The forerunner of the modern day artificial tree was invented in the 1930s in the US by cleaning brush makers Addis, with the same technology they used to make toilet brushes.
The first trees used dyed animal hair to create the needles on a metal frame. The durable and cheaply manufactured plastic PVC has replaced this. However these plastics are completely non-biodegradable, which means that no matter how long you keep your tree when it’s finally disposed of it will still be around for an incalculable amount of time. Then you’ve got to take into consideration the high levels of dioxins and toxic contaminants that are produced during the production of PVC, leading it to be labelled by health organisations as the single worst form plastic in existence.
But what about the chemical cocktails that are continually required by growers to keep their specimens free from pests, diseases, and to feed them, in order to keep up with the demand for fresh cut real trees each year? My first potted tree only gave up after five years because it got infected by greenfly that thrived in the warmth of the dining room when it was brought inside and subsequently finished off their host.
There have been studies around the world by various associations of Christmas tree growers that attempt to answer the question as to which is better: real or fake. In comparative life cycle assessments conducted by Montreal based sustainable development consultants Ellipsos they took into account the whole process from manufacturing/growing, transporting, use and re-use, right through to disposal, to assess the relative environmental impact of each type of tree. Discounting any lights or decorations they compared two seven foot trees of the average type purchased in each case. For the artificial tree the results were adjusted to take into account the fact that most people keep and re-use their tree, using six years as the average lifespan.
For both trees the short time they spend in our living rooms has a minimal effect on the environment. It’s what happens before and after December that is important. Everything that an artificial tree is made up from has to be made from raw products, which are first extracted or processed at high cost in energy, materials and waste. Meanwhile, real trees spend roughly four years in a nursery before being transplanted into a field for eight to eleven years. Often they’re grown in soil that cannot support any other crop. Every acre of growing Christmas trees can provide daily oxygen for 16 people as well as absorbing nearly 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Cut trees are usually grown and sold locally, or at least within their country of usage, so distribution costs to the environment are substantially lower than those of artificial trees which mostly come from China.
However the ecological impacts of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, the side-effects that these have on the wider environment, as well as the energy taken to farm real trees means that (aside from comparative CO2 emissions and sequestration) artificial trees end up being four times better for ecosystem quality. Large monocultures reduce biodiversity and they can increase susceptibility to disease with so many of the same species planted so close together. 2012 has seen a surge in cases of Current Season Double Needle Necrosis in British grown Christmas trees, increasing the need for fungicidal use on plantations.
Surprisingly it is the disposal of real trees that tested as the second largest contributor to climate change. This particular study estimated that 50 percent of real trees end up on landfill, and given that these trees are renewed on a yearly basis this contributes a much larger figure than the numbers of fake trees being ditched. What’s important to remember about landfill is that it is not the same as composting: landfill waste is compacted to exclude air so decomposition is anoxic, meaning it takes much longer for organic matter to break down. At least facilities are available to recycle your real trees when you have finished with them. Although both PVC and steel, the main constituents of artificial trees, are theoretically recyclable it would be extremely difficult and inconvenient to attempt to do so as it would involve stripping down the tree to its bare components, and let’s face it, in the aftermath of Christmas, who has the time or inclination for such a soul-destroying job?
Most municipal waste disposal systems in the UK provide some form of treatment for dead Christmas trees. They commonly end up as wood chip. Cornwall County Council are offering a free kerbside collection service again this year from 14th – 25th January 2013, after which the trees will be shredded and composted. Plymouth City Council alone mulched an estimated 5000 Christmas trees last year. Sometimes more novel uses are found for them: they even played their part in coastal conservation, helping to stabilise eroded sand dunes at some sites in Cornwall.
Of course none of these studies are the be-all and end-all: there are many types of tree both real and otherwise, and all are going to contribute different factors and effects, making it virtually impossible to calculate the true environmental cost. Generally real trees are the better option for climate change and resources, but if you were to keep reusing an artificial tree for 20 years or more it would not only overtake the real trees regarding cost to climate but keep your bank balance considerably healthier, especially with the rising costs of the high quality real trees.
But it’s all a matter of perspective. The overall impact of either sort of tree is less than 0.1 percent of our annual carbon footprint: so if you really want to make up for whatever tree you choose this year, using an alternative form of transport to get to work for just 1-3 weeks will offset the carbon emissions of its entire life cycle.
In the end I plumped for the middle way, stuck with my tradition of recent years, and invested in another small potted tree. It’s looking lovely, and I can feel better about the fact that the longer it stays green in appearance, the greener in ecological terms it will become.
So Christmas tree, o Christmas tree, your beauty green will teach me. I even managed to bring it home on the train – take that, carbon footprint.
Read the full study of the life cycle comparison of a real vs. a fake tree here
Or click here to go to The British Christmas Tree Grower’s Association