This year, the focus on sustainability has skyrocketed and many more people are deliberating on the environmental impact of more of their purchases than ever particularly over Christmas. The Christmas tree, in essence, is the very symbol of the crisis we find ourselves in, and that is why we wanted to bring you the very best advice this year on what to buy for the good of the environment.
Every year 8 million Christmas trees are felled in the UK alone. That is a lot of trees but that does mean that at least that many again will be replanted. The Christmas tree industry is of course just that – an industry, and it requires a continuous supply as well as demand. On the surface, it can seem wasteful to grow a tree, chop it down, decorate it and then throw it away after a relatively short time, but in terms of environmental benefits, it is good to plant trees!
It is worth knowing that 95% of those planted in the UK support local wildlife. Pine trees will also stabilize the soil, protecting water supplies, and of course, absorb carbon dioxide. They are often grown where other crops won’t grow and can preserve green spaces. They also happen to be biodegradable, recyclable (ie. most councils will take them away to make them into soil improvers) and renewable. And for some Christmas just isn’t Christmas without that Christmas tree smell and those dropping pine needles.
Disposing of Your Tree
One hugely important factor to take into consideration is the disposal of your tree – if you don’t dispose of it appropriately, it can be more of an environmental issue than the fuel used to get it from A to B. You really don’t want your tree to end up in landfill where it will produce highly damaging methane. You can safely either burn it or compost it with most local authorities offering some sort of ‘recycling’ service. You can check out our guide to Recycling Your Christmas Tree here. You might be surprised to hear that burning your tree is okay, but even burning the tree emits the carbon dioxide that it stored up when it was growing so there’s no net increase. It is wise to take advice on what you should burn in your own domestic fire or wood burner, however. We are no experts on that.
There is also a fantastic initiative being run by a charity called Just Helping who work with hospices, businesses, and volunteers to collect and recycle real Christmas trees. They raise money for the hospices and other local charities. You can check if there is a collection in your area or register an interest in providing one.
Okay, So Where Should I Buy My Tree?
So there are quite a few options out there including renting and mail order, but there are a few things to take into consideration to ensure you are choosing the most resourceful path!
Buy it from a Sustainable & Ethical Source
This seems obvious, but it can require a little bit of effort and research. Many Christmas trees are shipped in from abroad which hardly seems sensible when it is perfectly possible to grow them in the UK. So if possible, make sure you buy your tree from a small-scale organic sustainable grower – or directly from your local Christmas tree farm. Many places let you chop your own, which is a fantastic ritual for the family too.
You can check your supplier for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification but at the very least find out if it has been organically grown. You can also check out the British Christmas Tree Growers Association website or the Forestry Commission website for an approved grower near you! What you want to avoid is the guy in the layby with a pile of trees or a garage forecourt – they have probably been grown abroad in an intensive situation.
Mail Order with Care
Mail order Christmas trees are an option and usually come from a local grower or nursery. They are particularly useful if you lack transport! But make sure you check the website you are ordering from carefully. Some I have seen don’t provide very much information on how their trees were produced and that rings alarm bells. Just because they come out top of a Google search doesn’t mean they are your best option, in fact, anything but – it just means that somebody is spending a lot of money on Google Ad Words, which seems unlikely for a small sustainable grower. Send Me a Christmas Tree are a local producer and members of the CTGA, and Pines & Needles also appear to have the correct credentials, so they are a good place to start.
This seems to be becoming an increasingly popular option – another import from our friends across the pond by all accounts. And it would seem to make sense in terms of sustainability, as the tree is returned from whence it came once it has served its purpose. Love a Christmas Tree provide this service which includes delivery and collection from their farm in Leicestershire, Grown4Me grow their Nordman firs in Berkshire and Primrose Vale Farm in the Cotswolds do the same. You may have a local rental service near where you live, where you can also pop along and choose your own, leave a deposit, and then return it after Christmas.
Grow Your Own
Well, buy one with roots, find somewhere to plant it in the garden, and dig it up every year. That is by far the most environmentally friendly option, but not accessible to everyone.
A real pine or fir tree naturally absorbs CO2 and releases oxygen. The best thing you can do at Christmas is keep a tree alive and breathing. Disposing of a tree by composting produces CO2 and methane. An artificial tree has a higher carbon footprint than a natural one because of the energy intensive production processes involved. By far the best option is a potted tree which, with care, can be replanted after the festive season and re-used year after year.
Darran Messem, Managing Director of Certification at the Carbon Trust
Charity Christmas Trees
If a charity can benefit from your tree purchase, then this does seem like a fantastic fringe benefit. The Christmas Forest is an online supplier of Christmas trees, who work with Tree Aid, planting a tree in Africa for every tree that they sell.
In my village, the church and the school organise with some local growers to pre-order Christmas trees. They then pass on a donation to the chosen charity for their trouble. It is always worth checking what your own local community is up to – have a look on Facebook or in local media. There are some good people out there!
Trees with Benefits
Our Swedish friends at IKEA have come up with an added incentive for you to buy your tree from them – they have apparently sourced their trees from growers local to their stores, and if you buy a tree from them for £29 you get a £20 voucher back to spend on something else! Hurrah! (Available in most stores apparently, but do check, because I couldn’t see it at the one in Southampton when I was there this week!)
Pull a Pine for Christmas
Not everybody loves a Christmas tree, and occasionally the wrong sorts of trees pop up in the wrong sorts of places. These sorts of places include heathlands which need to be preserved to sustain certain sorts of rare wildlife including nightjars, smooth snakes and ladybird spiders. To solve the problem the RSPB host pine pulling events at this time of year, and are in fact holding two this weekend at Arne in Dorset, and in Farnham Heath in Surrey! I’ve seen one advertised at Stephens Castle in Dorset where the trees are free! Get along and have a pull!
The Artificial Line
So if you have had one for years, then, by all means, use it again and of course, many people have very definite reasons for wanting an artificial tree. Apart from their reusability, there are no transport requirements since you are generally just pulling it out of the loft or garage. Some people just prefer them whether it is for health reasons, because they have animals in the house, or just can’t bear dropping needles. And of course, over time it can be a lot cheaper.
The Carbon Trust estimates that a 2-metre artificial tree has a carbon footprint of around 40kg CO2e, more than twice that of a real tree that ends its life in a landfill, and more than ten times that of real trees that are burnt. You would need therefore to re-use it for at least 10 Christmases to keep its environmental impact lower than that of a real tree.
Around two-thirds of an average artificial Christmas tree’s carbon footprint is from the plastic (mostly PVC film) that it is made from, which is produced from carbon-intensive oil. Around a quarter of a typical artificial Christmas tree’s carbon footprint is from the emissions produced when the tree is manufactured. The vast majority are made in and shipped from China!
If you do need to dispose of an artificial tree, of course, you definitely want to try and avoid landfill. It is always good to donate it somebody who might need one – such as a school or a community organization. Some charity shops will also take them.
Whichever way you roll with your Christmas tree tradition, we hope that you find a nice one, and have a lot of fun decorating it! Next, we will be sharing with you the most resourceful Charity Christmas Cards, ie. those that truly benefit the charities, and our fully comprehensive Christmas Recycling Guide!