Sustainable Christmas Trees - Which Type Should I Get?

It's a question that all of us up and down the country are trying to answer right now: "I am trying to be sustainable this Christmas, should I be getting a real tree or a plastic tree?".

There is no clear right and wrong, as is often the way with questions on sustainability, the answer is a bit more nuanced, and there are a lot of factors at hand. We have broken down the issue for you, so you can make an informed choice this Christmas.

bauble on a christmas tree


Real trees – generally the best option

Real trees soak up CO2 straight from the atmosphere as they grow, and if they are grown sustainably - slowly, and without fertilisers - the environmental cost of ‘manufacturing’ real trees is effectively zero. Look out for certification from the Forest Stewardship Council to make sure they are grown in a sustainable way.

The bulk of the carbon emissions associated with real trees are in harvesting them, and transporting them to your house – locally grown trees would help minimise some of these emissions.

One of the key issues with a real tree is how you dispose of it. If it goes to landfill, it will decompose anaerobically, releasing methane (a very potent greenhouse gas ~15x worse than CO2) - removing many of the environmental benefits you had by having a real tree. Make sure you either use the council collection scheme, where it will be chipped, or burn it on a bonfire. In both cases the tree will release the CO2 is sucked in as it was growing, so the net effect is negligible.

Christmas lights blurred on a tree

Why would anyone choose a plastic tree?

Plastic trees have higher associated emissions than real trees. This is because they are made from fossil fuels, rather than soaking up carbon from the atmosphere as they grow.

However, plastic trees have a secret weapon – they can be used year after year. If you reuse a plastic tree for many years (~10+), it can actually be better for the environment than getting a new real tree each year over the same time period. One bigger lot of carbon emissions can be less than lots of smaller lots of carbon emissions.

So what should I go for?

The most sustainable option for you comes down to how many years you will want to make use of the tree – if it’s over a decade then the plastic option could be better. If it's less, then getting a real tree is the best.

However there is one more option you could do, and it is the best of the lot - buy a small potted Christmas tree! After Christmas, you can then stick it outside and grow it for next year, and the one after that. 

This is the most sustainable way to have a Christmas tree, since you get the key benefits of both the real and plastic trees.

potted christmas tree

Potted Tree Guide

Most garden centres sell small potted Christmas trees, around 3-4 feet tall. This means you can get many years out of them before they grow too big to easily handle. You’ll just need to repot them into bigger pots every 2-3 years, so they can continue growing healthily, and remember to water them throughout the year, as pots can dry out very quickly, but that’s about it. 

sustainable Christmas decorations on a white background

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