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Are real or plastic Christmas trees more sustainable? It's complicated

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that real Christmas trees are more sustainable than plastic Christmas trees. After all, they’re compostable, natural and… not made from plastic. But there’s much more to it than that. 

Real Christmas Trees: 

Real Christmas trees may easily seem like a more sustainable option. They're plastic-free, natural and compostable. They can also be a great way to support local businesses. But there are a few factors to consider. 

 

Real Christmas trees are… well, trees. We need more trees on the planet to sequester greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Christmas trees grow for around 8-10 years before they are cut down, during which time they’re performing their tree duties of turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. 

However, many commercial Christmas trees are grown using pesticides and synthetic fertilisers which can wreak havoc on the environment. Trees are also heavy and require significant fossil fuels to transport, especially if going long distances. 

The British Carbon Trust has found that a real tree that is properly disposed of has a 3.5 kg CO2 carbon footprint. If the tree ends up decomposing in landfill though, its footprint jumps to 16 kg. So there's a big difference in impact depending on how you dispose of the tree.

Plastic-free eco-friendly Christmas tree ideas

Plastic Christmas Trees:

According to the British Carbon Trust, creating the plastic used in fake Christmas trees (which comes from oil) accounts for around 66% of their carbon emissions. Another 25% is created by the industrial emissions produced when the tree is made. 

Their carbon footprint is increased further by the trees typically being shipped from China. In fact, 85% of plastic Christmas trees are made there.

Using a plastic Christmas tree for seven years will see it break even with the environmental impact of using a real tree each year. If you’re planning to use a plastic tree for that amount of time, it may be more eco-friendly to purchase plastic. 

If you already own a plastic Christmas tree, the most environmentally-friendly thing you can do is keep using it until the end of its life. This can be a few decades if you take care of it. 

Other eco-friendly Christmas tree options:

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Eco-friendly Christmas ideas real vs fake Christmas trees more sustainable
  • Find a second-hand plastic Christmas tree to use instead of buying one new.
  • Grow a Christmas tree in a pot that you can use for a number of years. 
  • Rent a Christmas tree in a pot from a local eco-friendly business.  
  • Make a driftwood Christmas tree that can be used for many years. 
  • Go tree-free this year.