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What is more sustainable; a natural or artificial Christmas tree?

What to choose; a real and actual Christmas tree, or its artificial, plastic counterpart? Let's look at this choice from an environmental perspective. We dive into the environmental impact of Christmas trees and compare the natural and the artificial tree.

With the dark and cold weather outside, a lot of households aim for a nice Christmas atmosphere inside. And for many people, the Christmas tree plays a central role in this. But what to choose; the real and actual tree, or its artificial, plastic counterpart? Let's look at this choice from an environmental perspective. We dive into the environmental impact of Christmas trees and compare the natural and the artificial tree.

Let’s get to know the real tree

In Christmas songs, we sing about pine trees, but the trees we display in our homes are mostly Norway spruce or the popular Nordmann spruce. The trees we find in Dutch households are commonly grown in Denmark, Germany or the Netherlands.

It takes some years before the trees are “grown up” to the typical-Christmas-tree-size; this will be somewhere between 7 and 12 years. Most people buy a new tree every year, and after the holidays they throw out the tree with the other trash. Or the tree is being burned.

Artificial trees: some details

Most artificial trees are made of plastics like PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or PE (polyethylene). The factories that make these trees are mostly located in China; the trees are shipped from there to countries all over the globe. On average, people use their artificial tree for 6 years before they discard them.

Compare the environmental impact

Context: insights in the impact with an LCA 

When you want to compare the environmental impact of 2 products, a comparative Life Cycle Assessment is the way to go. Or one of the ways to go. With an Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), you assess the environmental impact of the product over its whole life span. So from the mining of the materials and the transportation to the manufacturing phase, the use phase of the finalised product, and the waste processing of the product at the end of its lifetime.

When you do as LCA study of your product, you get insights in the different ways this product influences the environment. How much energy is needed for each of the phases, but also what the impact of the product is when considering so-called impact categories, such as ozone depletion, acidification, water use or eco-toxicity.

Conclusion: it all depends on how many Christmases you celebrate with your tree

So let’s look at the outcomes of an LCA study about the impact of real vs. artificial trees, calculated by our partner Ecochain. They made the calculations using average and standardized use-phases and transportation distances etc. for both the natural and the artificial trees.

The biggest environmental impact of the natural tree occurs in the cultivation of the tree and the following transport, before the tree is stationed at home. The total impact of a natural tree is 3.1 kg CO2-Eq. 


For the artificial tree, the biggest impact arises during the production at the factories and the transport up until the stores. The total impact of an artificial tree is 48.3 kg CO2-EQ. On average, people enjoy their artificial tree for 6 years: this makes the impact per year 8.1 kg CO2-EQ.

So, when we look at the impact per year, the natural tree is more sustainable than the artificial one. 

But; the longer you use your artificial tree, the more sustainable it becomes. Why? Because you “spread” the impact over more years. When instead of 6 years, you would for example keep the tree for 12 years, the impact per year goes down to 4.0 kg CO2-EQ per year.

Source: https://ecochain.com/blog/sustainable-christmas-trees/ 

 

There is a tipping point from where the artificial tree starts to be the more sustainable option: 16 years. When you use your artificial tree for 16 years or longer, its impact is with 3.0 kg CO2-EQ per year just lower than the natural tree.

Use your natural Christmas tree even more sustainable

During its cultivation, the natural Christmas tree contributes positively to our earth. Because trees produce oxygen, by capturing CO2. This process is called photosynthesis, and during this, trees ”clean” the air from all kinds of greenhouse gasses. But; the moment the tree is burned, what some people tend to do with their discarded Christmas tree, all these gasses are again emitted. Trees just temporarily store them.

So, better not to burn your tree. Just let it be collected by your local municipality. They will take care of it: the tree will go to a waste-to-energy plant (WTE), the chipper, or to composting. In the energy plant, CO2 is emitted, but no other harmful air pollutants. Additionally, a portion of the combustion energy in the power plant is converted into electricity. Composting or chipping Christmas trees does not generate energy, but it produces useful products, such as soil conditioner or ground cover.

Alternative: provide your natural tree with enough water during its “visit” in your home. And replant it after Christmas in your garden or nearby nature. With this, the tree will continue to grow and contribute positively to our climate.

Don’t buy a natural tree every year, adopt one or rent one.  After Christmas, you will return the tree, and the tree will be re-planted. Your tree will be marked, and the following Christmas you can pick it up again. It's fun to see your tree grow year by year!

And important: limit the amount of kilometers you travel, fossil-fueled, to pick up your tree. Choose a close-by store, and preferably go there by bike or walking.

Some natural Christmas trees have environmental labels; they are organic, on the way to planet proof or for example labeled by Naturbaum Siegel (checking if cultivation is environmentally friendly). By buying a tree with an environmental label, you make a more sustainable choice than buying one without.

When choosing an artificial tree, buy it second hand or invest in a high quality one. With this, you can prolong the lifespan of your tree and minimise its environmental impact. And again; minimise your fossil-fueled transport to pick up the tree.

And do you want to get rid of your artificial Christmas tree? Don’t throw it away; bring it to a second-hand store, sell it on Marktplaats or any other platform, or simply give it away.

And last, what about the Christmas lights?

Most people enjoy their tree all shiny-decorated with Christmas lights. What can we say about their impact? 


They use energy, and this has an environmental impact. Simply said; the less you light them, the more environmentally friendly they are. Consider using a timer, and only lighting the lights when you are at home and enjoying the sight of your tree.

A Dutch household turns on their Christmas lights on average for 32 days, 6-8 hours per day: this sums up to 192 or 256 hours in total. 

Luckily, nowadays, most Christmas lights are LED lights. This is way more environmentally friendly than other types of lights. Do you still use an older model? Consider replacing it with the more energy efficient and environmentally friendly option of LED lights. And get rid of your old lights in the correct way; it’s an electronic product, so don’t just throw it in the bin. 

Pay attention when you choose your new lights in the store. Unfortunately, there are still not-sustainable options for sale. 

Merry Christmas everyone!

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This article is written by:
Clara
Clara
Head of communications
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