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Natural vs artificial Christmas tree: which one is the most sustainable?

People who prefer artificial trees might tell you that their option is the eco-friendliest because:

a) no trees are being chopped down and

b) they can reuse their tree again and again.

But are they right?

In a recent study, Ellio, a sustainability consulting company from Quebec, found the answer to that question and it might well surprise you…

The consultants looked at the whole life cycle of each type of tree to find out which one had the biggest impact on the environment overall.

Firstly, real trees are farmed, they are an agricultural resource that is sustainably managed rather than a source of deforestation. They are usually grown in the same country as the place where they will be used, which means that the carbon emissions linked to transport are likely to be low. On the contrary, around 85% of all artificial trees are made in China, Taiwan and Korea where they come out of big factories that emit a lot of CO2. In addition, artificial trees are made of PVC plastic, known to be one of the most toxic to the environment.

Secondly, like all trees, Christmas trees are good for our atmosphere as they breathe in CO2 while emitting oxygen. A Christmas tree will absorb on average 0.69kg of CO2 per year and will usually be chopped down after 5 to 10 years of growth, which means that 3.7 to 7kg of CO2 are absorbed by each tree before they arrive into your house.

Finally, one more advantage of real trees over artificial ones is that once the natural tree leaves your home, it will be recycled or turned into compost whereas a plastic one cannot be recycled, it will likely be taken to landfill where it won’t breakdown.

The Ellio study was based on a scenario where artificial trees are reused for 6 years, which is the average lifespan of an artificial tree. However, if you use a plastic tree for 20 years or more, then your carbon balance will be better than that of a natural tree user.

So real trees have much smaller carbon footprints than artificial Christmas trees. Taking into account all the criteria listed above, the consultants from Ellio found that a natural tree emits 3.1kg of CO2 per year vs 8.1kg for an artificial tree.

But if you don’t like the idea of cutting down trees for decorative purposes, here are a few alternative options:

  • You could by a potted Christmas tree that you can use every year or replant after the festive season.

  • You could decorate a house plant you already own and turn it into your Christmas tree.

  • Some tree farms like Primrose Vale Farm have developed a renting service whereby they grow Christmas trees in pots rent them out for a few weeks around Christmas.

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