Real or Fake Christmas Trees?

It is that time of year when I plunge into the depths of the cellar and wrestle the Xmas tree out of its cardboard coffin. After assembling the three pieces and placing the tree in its stand, I just need to check the fairy lights still work before handing over the branch-straightening & decoration stage to Mary.

Mary setting up this year's Xmas tree

Also at this time of the year, the discussion of whether real or fake Xmas trees are better for the planet surfaces in the mainstream - and not so mainstream - media. My maxim on this topic was that fake trees used for at least 10 years were equivalent to a new real tree every year - I don't know where that information came from but it was planted into my memory many moons ago.

Since you should update your maxims as new evidence comes to light, I thought I would take another look at this topic. My first port of call was the Soil Association website which confirmed my long-held maxim that you need to re-use an artificial tree 10 times to negate its carbon footprint. Job done! Time to put some presents around our fake Xmas tree!

We then tried to recall how long we had had this particular fake tree. There is certainly a photo from Xmas 2018 where it features in the background ...

Xmas 2018

... and we inherited the tree from our son and daughter-in-law so that means it has been re-used at least five times.

Now for some 'facts and figures' from the Soil Association article:

  1. Seven million Xmas trees sold each year in the UK
  2. About half of these are fake, likely imported from China
  3. Most real trees are UK-grown but trees worth up to £3,000,000 imported
  4. Nordman Fir is the most popular real tree
  5. Xmas trees take 10-12 years to grow 6 feet, the most popular size
  6. A two-metre artificial tree has a carbon footprint of 40 kg (CO2 equivalent), a widely reported statistic
  7. Fake trees are used, on average, only four times before disposal
  8. Artificial trees are difficult to recycle
  9. The method of disposal chosen for real trees is an important factor in determining the overall carbon footprint
  10. A real tree that is burnt after Xmas has a footprint more than 10 times less than an artificial tree

Let us first consider the carbon footprint issue of the debate:

  • According to the Carbon Trust, a two-metre real tree where landfill is the means of disposal has a carbon footprint of 16 kg CO2e - largely down to the methane produced by the anaerobic decomposition process. So an artificial tree only needs to be used three times to have a lower carbon footprint.
  • Chipping the tree for use as a garden mulch or composting (aerobic) at home or in a local authority facility reduces the carbon footprint to about 3.5 kg CO2e. In this case, the artificial tree needs to be used more than 10 times to negate its carbon footprint relative to a real tree disposed of by chipping/composting.
  • Burning the tree has a similar 3.5 kg CO2e footprint
  • Growing your own tree in a pot that you bring inside every Xmas potentially has a negative carbon footprint
  • Suppose you use an artificial tree 10 times, then your annual carbon footprint is 4 kg CO2e. That is equivalent to 36 bananas, or 20 hours watching BBC iPlayer on a 55-inch LED TV, or driving 8 miles in an average UK car, or three 10-inch Margherita pizzas, or two litres of local cow's milk, or a dozen eggs, or one takeaway vegetarian curry for 4
  • While I'm a great believer in 'every little thing counts', it is difficult to get that worked up about the relatively small carbon footprint of an artificial tree
  • Also worth mentioning is the cost of picking up your real tree before Christmas and taking it to the local recycling centre post-Christmas for shredding/composting (i.e. the low-carbon option). A popular local grower of Xmas trees is located about 6 miles away while the recycling centre is 2.5 miles away. So a total of 17 miles in round trips by car - equivalent to 8 kg CO2e per year! Of course, you could have your tree delivered and collected but there will still be an additional carbon cost
  • In summary, although the general meme in the media is that real trumps fake every time in the Xmas tree debate, I find the arguments are far more nuanced. I do wonder whether Xmas tree growers just have a slicker PR machine. Even if you only keep an artificial tree for 4 years (the average), the carbon footprint of 10 kg CO2e per year is less than a real tree sent to lanfill and, potentially, less than a real tree disposed of responsibly. As our American friends say, you need to do the math!
 The average carbon footprint of a UK resident is 13 metric tonnes CO2e; 10 tonnes as carbon dioxide and 3 tonnes as other greenhouse gases. The per capita UK footprint is approximately double the world average and has not changed significantly since 1990. [Note: lower reported per capita footprints (e.g. 6 tonnes/annum) do not include imports/exports, shipping or aviation]

So, a per annum carbon footprint of 4 kg CO2e (real or fake tree) represents only 0.03 % of a typical UK resident's carbon footprint. I cannot help feeling there are better ways to reduce our footprint than worrying about whether to have a real or a fake Christmas tree.

Apart from its carbon footprint, there are a number of other environmental reasons you might prefer a real Xmas tree:

  • Recyclability: a real tree is biodegradable (composted, chipped) whereas a fake tree is not. It is reported that artificial trees are difficult to recycle because they are made up of different materials: wood, metal, plastic. I'm not 100% convinced on the second point. One of my neighbours passes on his real Xmas tree to me for disposal. I shred and compost the leaves and needles and saw up the trunk as fuel for our woodburner. When the time comes to dispose of our fake Xmas tree, I will try to pass it on as a Xmas tree to someone else before looking at recycling options. The plastic needles will be stripped off into a bag and disposed of with our general waste for incineration and electricity production. The separated metal branches and wooden trunk will both be recycled at our local facility. Not that difficult really if you put a bit of effort in.
  • Real trees 'absorb' carbon during their growing stage which has to be good? Except it is the mature trees that sequester the most carbon and at a faster rate. So as a carbon sink, it would be better to allow these Xmas trees to keep growing instead of chopping them down. Furthermore, trees allowed to mature sufficiently to produce lumber for, say, building could lock away that carbon for centuries.
  • During their growing stage, Xmas trees provide habitat for wildlife. While this may be true relative to barren treeless areas, we can provide a much better and more biodiverse habitat by planting a range of local tree-types that are allowed to mature. Or we could grow crops to feed people. 
  • Real trees (and plants) absorb pollutants and improve indoor air quality. This is a bit of a double-edged sword. Pine trees are one of the biggest contributors to air pollution but there are also issues with the plasticizers, flame retardants and other chemicals in fake Xmas trees. Real trees may also bring in other flora and fauna (moulds, insects, bacteria, pollen) that may give an allergenic reaction. Unless the fake Xmas tree is the only bit of plastic in your home, it is unlikely to have an impact on air quality. And you could pick a better alternative to Xmas trees from the range of houseplants known to improve indoor air quality.

So, our fake 6-year-old Xmas tree still has a few more years left in it and we are not planning a replacement anytime soon. By my reckoning, we are already ahead in the carbon footprint game compared with having a real tree every year. All the decorations are decades old and many were made at home by the children.

Everyone's situation will be different but choosing between a real and an artificial Christmas tree should not cause you any anxiety provided you act responsibly. It is a very minor part of your overall carbon footprint and, probably, a relatively minor part of your overall Xmas footprint - e.g. a 6 kg turkey has a carbon footprint of 65.4 kg CO2e!!

Happy Christmas, everyone

Christmas 2022


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