Around 8 million trees are sold in the UK every year. But what's the most sustainable option? | Sean Gallup / Getty

Are Christmas Trees Sustainable? The Real Environmental Impact

If you want to have a fully sustainable Christmas, here is the best choice of tree for a centerpiece, plus a few Christmas tree alternatives.

The holiday season is here, and around the world, people 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 the changing and updating of many Christmas traditions.

Approximately 8 million Christmas trees are sold each year in the UK. While in the U.S., 2018 saw the sale of 32.8 million real trees and 23.6 artificial ones. But between 2018 and 2019, the number of Google searches for “sustainable Christmas trees” went up by 233 percent.

Overall, people tend to prefer real trees to plastic or other alternatives. Bringing a fresh tree home is a popular way to keep authentic festive traditions alive. Not to mention a fun family activity in the time before the holidays. Many people perceive them to be a more environmentally-friendly option. But if you’re aiming for a fully sustainable Christmas, what is the best choice of tree for a centerpiece? And why exactly do we decorate trees at all?

The History of Christmas Trees

Evergreen trees have been used during winter celebrations for thousands of years. So decorating your house with one of the 35-plus species of coniferous trees synonymous with Christmas — including pine, fir, and spruce — has a history stretching back to ancient civilizations in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Ancient people hung evergreen branches around their homes in winter, particularly above doors and windows. 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 long-standing Christian traditions.

Decorated trees as we think of them today first became a Christian custom in Germany during the 16th century. As Germans migrated they brought the holiday tradition with them — notably to both the U.S. and the UK.

Decorated trees did not become truly popular in the U.S. until the early 1900s. Despite the presence of community trees in certain areas as early as the 1700s. In the UK, decorating homes, churches, and public spaces with evergreen branches is well established in Christian and pagan tradition. But it was also not until the 1900s that the small, decorated trees became popular outside of the wealthy and members 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.

Which is more sustainable? An artificial tree or a real one?

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 ax, but eschewing artificial options means less plastic. While both create emissions through transportation, the production of artificial trees has a particularly significant environmental impact.

If you already have an artificial tree — or are looking to rescue, borrow, or buy a pre-owned one — then that may 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.

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 — the production of which creates hazardous waste and airborne pollution. PVC is also notoriously difficult to recycle at the end of its life.

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.

A typical 6 foot tall Christmas tree takes approximately 5-to-10 years to fully grow. During this growth, 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.

Trees cut off from their roots are the least sustainable real tree option. | Spencer Pugh / Unsplash

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 who 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.

Trees that are cut to include a significant proportion of their roots and surrounding soil can survive the Christmas period. But trees that are grown inside a pot — and can be transported without cutting — are the most likely to survive and be successfully transplanted. Purchasing a tree with the maximum chance of survival from a local farmer will minimize the impact of transportation and disposal.

“Disposing of a tree by composting produces CO2 and methane,” said Darran Messem, Managing Director of Certification at the Carbon Trust. “An artificial tree has a higher carbon footprint than a natural one because of the energy-intensive production processes involved.”

“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,” added Messem. This could even result in negative emissions, thanks to your tree’s carbon-capturing potential.

Christmas Tree Alternatives

There are also a variety of innovative tree-free sustainable 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.

Whatever you choose this year, making decorations out of recycled fabric, paper, cardboard, and other household items can also significantly reduce your impact on the environment and make your Christmas extra sustainable.