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Twelfth Night Tragedy Of The Dumped Christmas Tree

Recycling Christmas trees
02 January 2019 | Updated 04 January 2019

Will Richardson, from environmental consultancy Green Element says are you really going to be binning a real Christmas Tree on Twelfth Night...or should you have gone for the 'more sensible' plastic option?

Chopping down thousands upon thousands of purpose-grown trees and dragging them into the office for a few weeks of the year, only to then drag them back out again and send them off for disposal by the council has got to be so much worse for the environment than buying one artificial (albeit largely plastic) tree and keeping it for...well...forever?


Understanding the difference

The most obvious environmental difference is the fact of a one-off product vs an ongoing annual purchase – you would assume that the much larger environmental impacts at the production stage for the artificial tree would, given enough time, eventually be offset by endless annual cycles of growing-transporting-disposing of natural trees.

The question seems to boil down to how long does it take to break even? How many years would you have to keep your artificial tree before not buying that natural tree each year has cancelled out the environmental impacts of production?

One 2011 study commissioned by the American Christmas Tree Association, 'the ISO-compliant PE America’s Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of an Artificial Christmas Tree and a Natural Christmas Tree', concluded that within only four years the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of the artificial tree breaks even with the real tree – if the natural trees are either incinerated or composted after use.

However, many assumptions are made – as they almost always have to be – regarding the details of both natural and artificial tree production, transportation and end-of-life disposal method. For example, the PE America study assessment of natural trees includes the environmental impacts of a human-made stand and also assumes the Christmas tree farms use fertilisers and pesticides – and that the consumer drives at least 5km each year to pick up their tree in an average American car. Clearly not all of these assumptions will be applicable in the UK in 2018.



Now check this out - If the natural tree is landfilled (yes, landfilled) the Global Warming Potential break-even point will never arrive! That’s right – it will always be better for climate change if you buy the real tree – so long as you dump it in a landfill site!

Why? Because, at least for 100 years and possibly for much longer, 77% of the carbon content of the tree will not escape into the atmosphere as greenhouse gas but will remain trapped inside the sealed lining of the site. In this study (again based in the USA), landfill sites also convert a percentage of the greenhouse gases that the garbage releases into electricity, i.e. energy-from-waste – further reducing the GWP of a real tree sent to landfill.


Twenty years

An LCA study by Canadian consultants ellipsos found that the GWP breakeven point for natural vs artificial trees is much further down the line – 20 years on. This means that if you want your artificial tree to match natural trees for kindness to climate change, you need to hang on to it for at least 20 years.


So the answer to the question – shall I buy another ‘real’ tree or go fake? KEEP IT REAL but reduce your tree’s footprint by:

  • Carrying the locally-bought tree to your home or office on your back – preferably in an elf costume.

  • Buy a metal stand and keep it forever.

  • Turn the tree lights off when the office is closed.

  • Send it to compost on January 6 (or Monday January 7) .


Offsetting your Christmas tree emissions

To put things into perspective, the emitted CO2 over the entire life cycle are approximately 3.1 kg CO2 per year for the natural tree and 8.1 kg CO2 per year for the artificial tree (48.3 kg for its entire life span). These CO2 emissions roughly correspond to driving an average car (150 g/km) 125 km and 322 km, respectively.

Therefore, to offset the emissions from one Christmas tree one employee would have to ditch their car for one week per year for the natural tree or three weeks per year for the fake tree or give up eating meat for one week per year.

Picture: Treemendous - Will Richardson of Green Element is actually in favour of the real Christmas tree. His new online tool - - allows businesses to compare their footprint to competitors.

Article written by Will Richardson | Published 02 January 2019


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