Christmas trees – how green can they be?

Siôn Elis Williams

01 December 2015

Christmas trees are a great tradition and the ultimate symbol of the festive season. But what are your options: Real or artificial tree? Buy or rent? Keep or dump?

Treehugging takes on new meaning when I see people grappling with Christmas trees as well as shopping and children.

Decorating evergreen conifers originates from the 16th century. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the custom of having a Christmas tree became widespread in the UK.

A 1933 ban on importing foreign trees helped establish the UK Christmas tree-growing industry. And in 2013 8 million trees were grown in the UK for the Christmas market. 

Save a tree, send an e-card

About Christmas trees

Depending on species, climate and a few other factors it takes 8-12 years to grow a 7ft tree. 

Not everyone wants such a big tree, but an article in The Telegraph claimed that by last year the trend was for households to have two trees - both of them tall enough to scrape the living room ceiling.

Frankly that sounds more like wishful thinking than accurate reporting.

So away from the marketing hype and keeping up with the Joneses, what are your Xmas tree options?

Real versus artificial Christmas trees

Surprisingly, artificial trees have offered an alternative to living spruce, pine and fir trees since the 19th century. The first artificial trees were made in response to the loss of pine forests in Germany. Goose feathers dyed green imitated the green needles. 

Are modern artificial trees any better for the planet, as well as your purse?

A life-cycle assessment comparing artificial and real trees reaches interesting conclusions. For example, if an artificial tree is kept more than 4 years, what’s known as the “global warming potential” associated with the artificial tree is less than a natural tree purchased every year for more than 4 years. Having said that, the combination of materials used in artificial trees often make them impossible to recycle.

You might decide to decorate an existing tree, grow your own, rent a tree or do without one altogether - a friend of mine just drapes their cactus in tinsel and baubles to great effect. 

Recycling Christmas trees

If you go for a real tree the day will come when you must go your separate ways. This is the moment in your tree’s life-cycle when you can make sure it - and your festive spirit - don’t go to waste.

I’ve noticed so many trees being dumped on the street almost as soon as Christmas is over. 

Your local council pays a high price if trees end up in landfill. Many local authorities collect Christmas trees for recycling into chippings used in parks or woodlands. Some charities collect trees for a small donation. Even unwanted or broken Christmas lights can be recycled and potentially end up becoming part of a present.

Green Christmas?

Of course trees are just one example of how we can get carried away with consumerism at this time of the year. 

It’s said that it’s better to give than to receive, but it’s easy to get carried away buying gifts. 

Consider whether your presents have lasting appeal and you’ll likely please those people you’re buying for - and do the planet a favour. 

And if you miss the Christmas post, or just want to avoid more dead trees, consider sending a seasonal Friends of the Earth e-card.

Happy Christmas!

Save a tree, send an e-card

This article was originally published on 19 December 2014.

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Christmas tree design made of glass