Conscientious Christmas trees

When I was really small, we had a real Christmas tree. Then when I was six we got a cat and,
worried that it would eat all the dropped pine needles with unpleasant results, my parents bought
a fake tree. We’ve used it every Christmas, and although it is fairly fuss-free I sometimes miss
the clean scent of pine.

The modern Christmas tree

Having a decorated Christmas tree in your house is a tradition that began in 17th Century Germany, and was popularized in Britain by Prince Albert in the 19th Century. Roughly six million trees are sold in the UK each year, and some (such as the Noble Fir) can take up to ten years to reach maturity. Six million sounds like a frightening number, especially for something that holds a place of such transience in your home. It’s that thought which prompts many to buy false (plastic) Christmas trees instead, which can last as long as fifteen years. And it sounds perfect doesn’t it: you get to avoid cutting down a living, oxygenating tree and save money.

Unfortunately, they may not be as brilliant as they initially sound.

Behind the branches

Fake trees are made using PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, the production of which emits carcinogens. Fake tree manufacturers can also use lead and other nasty elements in tree production which can have adverse affects on your health (such as liver and kidney damage) when you’re exposed to the tree itself and the chemical-laced dust it can shed. Additionally, as it is made of plastic, artificial trees cannot biodegrade or be recycled, and any attempts at incineration risk emitting the carcinogens the tree contains into the air.

O conscientious Christmas tree!

So what are your alternatives? The most environmentally friendly option when shopping for a Christmas tree is a real tree. They come in two forms: cut (meaning they have been cut at the base of the trunk and require a tree stand) or planted (meaning they have been uprooted and put in a pot). Christmas trees are grown specially on farms, sometimes in areas that are otherwise considered unusable such as under power lines, and spend their growing period soaking up carbon dioxide (according to an acre of Douglas fir trees can absorb over 11 000 lbs of carbon dioxide each year). When they’re harvested, the trees are replaced, sometimes with two or more trees, and they’re shipped locally, which has the dual job of ensuring that buyers receive a fresh product and reducing the tree’s carbon footprint. Having a real tree also oxygenates your home, it can be recycled, and a planted tree can be put in the garden when the holidays are over.

The Guardian’s guide to an ethical and green Christmas gives a number of suggestions about tree procurement and disposal. The website rents out potted Christmas trees that they will deliver and collect and replant, leaving you only with the task of watering and decorating. The Soil Association website contains a list of small-scale sustainable growers, and the independent company Christmas Forest which is based in London sells sustainable, UK-grown trees and is linked to Tree Aid which plants a tree in Africa for every Christmas tree sold. Additionally, many local councils have Christmas tree recycling schemes.

You know, with options like that, I think it’s about time I ditched the fake tree. What about you?

Sources:,, Guardian

Photography: Andrew Malone @Flickr

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