The holiday season is here again and people around the world are getting out their Christmas decorations. For many, a tree is the focal point of all festive decorating. But increasing environmental consciousness has led to updated traditions in some households.
Between eight and 10 million real Christmas trees are sold each year in the UK, with 25 to 30 million sold in the U.S. (plus over 20 million artificial ones). Overall, people tend to prefer real trees to plastic or other alternatives, and bringing a fresh tree home is a popular way to keep authentic festive traditions alive, not to mention a fun family activity.
Many people also perceive them to be a more environmentally-friendly option. Just between 2018 and 2019, the number of Google searches for “sustainable Christmas trees” went up by 233 percent. If you’re aiming for a fully sustainable Christmas, what is the best choice of tree for a centerpiece? Are we just better off without? And why decorate trees in the first place?
The history of Christmas trees
Evergreen trees have been used during winter celebrations for thousands of years, and decorating your house with one of the 35-plus species of coniferous trees synonymous with Christmas today—including pine, fir, and spruce—has a long history stretching back to ancient civilizations in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
People hung evergreen branches around their homes in winter, particularly above doors and windows, and in many cultures the green leaves served as a hopeful reminder of the spring to come. This is one reason for their inclusion in pagan winter solstice festivals, as well as in the long-standing Christian traditions that came later.
Decorated trees as we think of them today first became a Christian custom in Germany during the 16th century. As Germans migrated they brought their holiday traditions with them, perhaps most notably to the UK and U.S. Despite the presence of community trees in certain areas as early as the 1700s, decorated trees did not become truly popular in the U.S. until the early 1900s.
In the UK, decorating homes, churches, and public spaces with evergreen branches is now well established in Christian and pagan tradition. But it also took until the 1900s for small, decorated trees to become popular outside of the wealthy aristocracy and gatherings of the Royal Family.
Traditionally, these Christmas trees were decorated with candles and edible treats such as apples, dates, and nuts. Now, electric lights have mostly replaced candles, while candy canes, chocolates, and other sugary sweets are far more commonplace than fruit or nuts.
Real or artificial: which is the most sustainable tree?
Whichever type of tree you buy, it may seem like an obvious sustainable choice: avoiding real fir could save a tree from the axe, but eschewing artificial options means less plastic. While both are likely to create emissions through transportation, the production of artificial trees undoubtedly has a higher environmental impact.
According to the Carbon Trust, around 66 percent of the emissions created by plastic trees come from the carbon-intensive oil it is made from, while approximately 25 percent of its emissions originate in the manufacturing process in general. Many artificial trees are made from PVC plastic, creating hazardous waste and airborne pollution.
PVC is also notoriously difficult to recycle at the end of its life, and the Carbon Trust estimates that a 2 meter-tall artificial tree creates around 40kg C02e, over twice that of a real tree—even if it ends up in a landfill where it will produce methane gas.
If you already have a plastic tree—or are looking to rescue, borrow, or buy a pre-owned one—then that may still be your best option. But if buying new, you would need to re-use it for at least 10 years to keep its environmental impact lower than that of a real tree.
A typical 6 foot tall Christmas tree takes approximately 5-to-10 years to fully grow. During this time, the trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, helping to offset climate change and global warming. So overall, a real tree really does have less of an impact on the environment than an artificial one, particularly if your tree is replanted after the holiday season.
Replanting your tree
Ensuring your tree survives the Christmas period in order to be replanted is ideal, and some nurseries even offer a collection service. Rent-a-tree is also available from certain companies that ensure that your tree is removed from the ground and replaced again without damage.
Trees that are cut off from their roots—also known as “use-and-throw”—are the least sustainable option. These are typically shredded for mulch or compost. If you do get a tree of this type, disposing of it responsibly will significantly reduce its end-of-life environmental impact, and some wildlife services even use old trees to improve flood defenses in dune environments.
“An artificial tree has a higher carbon footprint than a natural one because of the energy-intensive production processes involved,” explains Darran Messem, Managing Director of Certification at the Carbon Trust. But “disposing of a tree by composting produces CO2 and methane.”
Christmas trees that are grown inside a pot—and can be transported without cutting—are the most likely to survive and be successfully transplanted, but trees that are cut to include a significant proportion of their roots and surrounding soil can still make it through the holidays.
“By far the best option is a potted tree which, with care, can be replanted after the festive season and re-used year after year,” adds Messem. This could even result in negative emissions, thanks to your tree’s superb carbon-capturing potential.
Purchasing a real tree with the maximum chance of survival from a local farmer will minimize the impact of growth, transportation, and disposal, and therefore your Christmas. Failing that, there are a myriad of relatively eco-friendly disposal methods for real trees, as long as they don’t end up in landfills. But if you really want to get creative (and sustainable), try these alternatives.
Christmas tree alternatives
In addition to the above options, there are also a variety of innovative, tree-free alternatives to both pine and plastic. Some people choose to decorate a tree, plant, log, or piece of wood they already have. Succulents, “swiss cheese” plants, and spider plants all make effective mini-trees.
Decorating a ladder—or a ladder-style wall hanging—is also increasingly popular, as is using everyday items such as books, glass bottles, and even drawings, paintings, and prints.
As with most things, the items you already have are always the most sustainable choice, and creating a festive centerpiece out of everyday items can be a fun activity in itself. This doesn’t just apply to trees, and making decorations out of recycled fabric, paper, cardboard, and other nick-nacks all contributes to making your holiday season extra sustainable.