The great Christmas tree debate: Are real or fake firs better for the environment?

Sabrina Barr
Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel in 'Elf': Rex Features/New Line Distribution

For many of us, the first shivers of that festive feeling come as we meander through the pines and firs at the local Christmas tree stall.

Yet, while we become evermore conscious of the environmental impact of our spending, the question of whether artificial or real Christmas trees have a lower carbon footprint has become top of the eco-friendly Yuletide agenda.

Do we opt for a lifelong plastic tree we can dust off and reuse every year, or do we embrace the urge for that real Christmas tree smell, buying one freshly felled and dumping it in a landfill come January?

The obvious answer may be to shirk buying any tree at all – but bah humbug! The Independent has sought the advice of experts to find out...

What kind of Christmas tree has the lowest carbon footprint?

If you buy a real Christmas tree that is not locally sourced, then the process of transporting it to your home can rack up quite the hefty carbon footprint.

This may lead us to assume that a long-lasting fake tree would be the way to go, as it wouldn’t require the annual car journeys and petrol exhausts.

But that isn’t the case, according to The Carbon Trust, who says that a real Christmas tree has a “significantly lower” carbon footprint than an artificial tree, particularly if it is disposed of in a sensible manner.

According to the organisation, a natural two-metre Christmas tree that does not have roots and is disposed of into a landfill after Christmas produces a carbon footprint of around 16kg of CO2.

A two-metre tree that has roots and is properly disposed of after its use — by burning it on a bonfire, planting it or having it chipped — has a carbon footprint of around 3.5kg of CO2, four and a half times less.

On the other hand, a two-metre Christmas tree made from plastic has a carbon footprint measuring at around 40kg of CO2, more than 10 times greater than a properly disposed of real tree.

Therefore, if you have an artificial tree, you would need to use it for at least 10 years in order for its environmental impact to equal that of a responsibly-disposed natural tree.​ That is, if it has been built to last that long.

Many local councils across the country offer Christmas tree collection services, where used Christmas trees are picked up and recycled.

Darren Messem, managing director of certification at the Carbon Trust, explains that the high carbon footprint of artificial trees comes from the “energy-intensive production processes involved”.

Meanwhile, a real pine or fir tree “naturally absorbs CO2 and releases oxygen”.

Anne Mari Cobb, certification officer at Soil Association Forestry, explains why opting for a real tree over the festive period is the organisation’s recommended option.

“Real Christmas trees are a renewable resource that doesn’t result in pollution, if responsibly recycled or disposed of,” Cobb states.

Messem explains that when a Christmas tree is disposed of efficiently by composting, this “produces CO2 and methane”.

Cobb adds that there’s no need to worry about deforestation when buying a natural Christmas tree, because the majority “are grown as a horticultural crop and aren’t felled from pre-existing forests”.

The process of growing a Christmas tree to optimum height takes around eight to 10 years, The Woodland Trust states.

When a Christmas tree is cut down, it is immediately replaced by another seedling, with up to 10 trees being planted for every 6-7ft tree that’s grown.

What should you do if you already have a plastic Christmas tree?

If you already have an artificial Christmas tree in your home and would like to keep using it, it would be advantageous to do so, says Emi Murphy, trees campaigner at environmental organisation Friends of the Earth.

“A general rule of thumb is if you’ve got a fake tree already, keep using it and make it last as long as possible,” Murphy tells The Independent.

Once the time comes for the tree to be replaced, then you can look into the more environmental option of selecting a real tree for your home.

How should you go about buying a real Christmas tree?

If you are on the lookout for a real Christmas tree, Cobb advises trying to find one that is locally sourced and grown.

This will cut down on the tree’s carbon footprint by reducing the miles travelled to collect it, in addition to supporting local business owners.

When buying a natural Christmas tree, different types are more eco-friendly than others, Murphy of Friends of the Earth outlines.

“If you are still deciding, buying a potted tree with roots lets you grow it outside and use it year after year, which will reduce its environmental impact and be cost efficient, too.”

Murphy emphasises the versatility of potted Christmas trees, explaining how they can be placed on a small balcony, outdoors or even planted in the ground to be used on an annual basis.

Why not consider renting a tree?

Another way in which greater sustainability can be incorporated into your festive tree tradition is by hiring a Christmas tree for the season that has already been used before.

Companies likes non-profit organisation Freecycle can help you source a Christmas tree that has been used by another household before, or you may be able to find one at local garden centres or plant nurseries.

“Or if you already have a large perennial indoor plant – like a yucca – just decorate it at Christmas time!” Murphy adds.

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