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How sustainable is your Christmas tree?

Have you ever wondered how sustainable your Christmas tree choice is? We were wondering this very thing, so decided to do our own research into the carbon footprint of potted trees, cut trees and artificial trees, including looking into the location they are sold, their packaging, transportation to our homes and their end of life disposal afterwards. Statista states that this year 64% of people in the UK are opting for an artificial tree and 17% for a real tree; which one will come out as most sustainable though? 

This is a desktop look into each option and there is more research that could be done on this topic, but we think this is a good start into finding data and framing our thinking. Our study is based on a UK scenario in December 2022, using a 6ft/180cm high tree. Detailed carbon data measurements and comparisons can be found at the end of this post. 

Potted Tree Option

When thinking of potted trees, we were surprised to see the amount of limitations for their end of life in city centres and when considering good ecology and biodiversity issues too. Christmas trees are not the best when planted just anywhere. Local councils are apparently already having to dig up ad hoc trees planted by well intended residents which then cause negative impacts on their workload, park life and is a general waste of resources. If you are lucky to own a garden in a city centre, you may be able to plant some trees for a few years, but are Christmas trees the right species? This page here on the Queens Green Canopy shares advice and sources on how to choose and plant a tree.

We run the life cycle impacts for a potted tree in the countryside and city centre. We modelled the calculations so that the tree in the country is planted on private land (field) after each year, but the tree in the city will be recycled and composted into soil improver material and the pot recycled. 

If the potted tree is planted on managed land and selected for aligned ecological integration and re-wilding, then this would be the most positive Christmas tree selection. In fact, the best option we can see is one where the Christmas tree selection is done as part of a tree planting project such as the Queens Green Canopy. We are buying a tree in any case, we might as well buy one that is needed and avoid the double cost, associated impacts and negative ecology. Certainly, the need to decouple the image of the tree we have printed in our minds and cards associated with Christmas would be required! 

Location 1: Comparing life cycle impacts of the three study options in a city or town location.

Cut Tree Option

This is the option that many are familiar with and which carries the most emotional wellbeing benefit when it comes to Christmas, which needs to be factored in when weighing up the sustainability of the approach. Not having a tree can dint the need for good and happy feelings in the middle of the dark winter in the northern hemisphere which is part of a sustainable life. The challenge is to keep such a tradition but reduce the impacts to sustainable levels. 

When we run the life cycle impacts for the trees in both locations we selected a tree stand (new in the countryside and existing in the city location) and added watering too to keep the tree fresh during use. The end of life for them is different; one reliant on council waste policies which happen to revert it into recycled pot soil for sale, and the other to burn it as part of an open fire and heat generation in a home.

PLEASE NOTE that the modelling has intentionally not balanced the energy consumption in the city location which would mirror the heating benefit in the countryside location. The energy supplier in the city location is 100% renewable and we have assumed this as a future result for most homes. The burning of wood is sadly like burning money and a pure release of carbon into the atmosphere. We gain huge amounts of wellbeing from an open fire setting and the soft glow etc and changing or ‘removing’ this from people’s lifestyles (images, Christmas cards, retail settings etc) will be very difficult and painful. The best result will be to remove emissions of carbon from other areas in life so we could sustain the open log fires… For now, we are highlighting the amount of carbon emitted when this practice happens to raise awareness and change other life choices wherever possible.

Location 2: Comparing life cycle impacts of the three study options in a countryside location.

Artificial Tree

Last, but not least, artificial trees are an option and are chosen by people for a variety of needs such as lack of mess, allergies, pets, cost etc. The one we have modelled is made of plastic and in China which is a typical type available currently in high street shops. When we asked the selected high street retailer for details of this product’s origins, the staff found it difficult to tell us. There was also a rather dubious description of tree planting practices by the retailer beside this product’s online listing which seems to us heavy greenwashing and suspicious misinformation when we asked questions on it.  

Summary and Recommendations

Based on the data and above thinking, one does need to find out where the sourcing of their tree is coming from and what the end of life options are in their local area to see which will have the lowest impact. 

The solution we think is most sustainable along the real tree approach, and which will support both the wellbeing needs and nourish our ecosystem, is to purchase trees that are needed in our local/national habitat and once used can be donated for planting. For example, we could ‘rent’ a tree that is part of the Queens Green Canopy project; have it delivered home and then once used have it collected/delivered to the local area it will be planted in. 

If one wants to simply buy one and dispose of it, purchasing one from Scotland from an FSC managed forest that is transported with an electric vehicle in a decarbonised national grid and recycled back into soil, will be the best option! This approach may actually give a net gain as it can support local economics in Scotland for something that is natural in the area and renewable, it gives the service many currently find easiest and avoids non-sustainable sources.

The solution we think is most sustainable along the artificial tree approach, which borrows some natural elements and avoids crude oil materials, is to create an artificial tree using biobased plastics (or twigs and branches from garden cuts) and make them within the same continent or country, in our case Europe or the UK. 

Whichever option you choose, just reading this data and having it in mind will already make a difference. We hope the festive break is full of nourishing moments and lots of love. See you in the new year for more fun and games around interiors, lifestyle and sustaining all the wonderful things of life.

Other studies to read that can be used as excuses for alone time if you find yourselves needing it in a busy house over Christmas:

The data – combined kg CO2e for all options

The data – city centre location

The data – countryside location

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