How green is your Christmas tree?

As the festive season swings around once again, so too does the annual Christmas tree dilemma. With environmental concerns increasingly high on the public agenda, sustainability is fast becoming a deciding factor in the choice between real or plastic – but which tree really is the ‘greenest’?

According to the Carbon Trust, a real Christmas tree is the more environmentally-friendly option, as artificial trees – many of which are imported from China – have a carbon footprint of around 40 kilogrammes (kg) of carbon dioxide (CO2), more than twice the emissions of a real tree that is sent to landfill and than ten times more than real trees that are burnt.

How green is your Christmas tree?

If you already have an artificial tree, the Carbon Trust suggests that it must be reused for around 10 years for its environmental impact to match that of a real tree. Unfortunately, as artificial trees are made from a combination of plastics and metals, they can’t be recycled, but charity shops will usually accept unwanted trees for resale and reuse.

Rachelle Strauss, founder of Zero Waste Week and winner of Resource Hot 100 2014, explains that artificial trees can develop a sentimental value when used time and time again: “We bought a display tree that might have ended up being thrown away by the shop and I vowed that this tree was ‘for life’.

“When my daughter gets her own place, I’ll let her have it. My fantasy is that this tree then gets passed on to her children and with care and attention, I don’t see why this shouldn’t happen. By that time it will have real history and meaning."

How should you dispose of a real tree?

Although artificial trees do produce more emissions, real Christmas trees also have a significant carbon footprint if sent to landfill, with a two-metre tree releasing around 16kg CO2, according to the Carbon Trust.

Local authorities offer varying solutions to sustainable Christmas tree disposal – many will provide drop-off points or collection services in January, whilst some councils will ask you to cut up your Christmas tree and place in the garden waste collection bin.

Craig Stephens, Campaign Manager at Recycle Now, explains: “Real Christmas trees should be recycled and shredded into chippings which can then be used locally in parks or woodland areas.

“Some local authority garden waste collections will accept Christmas trees. Either cut it up and put it in your bin, or put it by your garden waste bin on collection day – but do check with your local authority before you do so.

“Local authorities often arrange drop-off points or special collections of ‘real’ trees in early January; dates and locations will usually be advertised with any other changes to collections over the Christmas period. You can find out details of what your local authority collects, and their contact details, by entering your postcode into our Recycling Locator tool.”

Tree rental

If you’re concerned about the impact of buying a new tree each year, Christmas tree rental is emerging as an increasingly popular, environmentally-conscious alternative.

Craig Tennock, owner of Cotswold Fir near Cheltenham, runs a rental scheme – entitled ‘Rental Claus’ – which hires out thousands of potted spruce trees each December, which are then returned to be reused the next year.

“People feel that cutting down a tree is hurting the earth,” Tennock says. “When they rent a tree from us and they bring it back in the New Year, it brings a sense of pride and it makes people think that they are making a difference.

“There’s a personal aspect as well – people love that they can rent out the same tree each year.”

Although renting is usually preferable to cutting down a tree, Tennock points out that the environmental consequences depend on how far people travel.

“We do offer delivery, but we always do it en masse rather than one at a time so that we can reduce emissions. We will turn work away if people want to travel far distances to us – what’s the point of someone driving an hour from Birmingham when they could just pick up a tree locally?”

You can find more information on the Rental Claus website.

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