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Real vs Fake: How to curb your Christmas tree carbon emissions

Real vs Fake: How to curb your Christmas tree carbon emissions
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December is rapidly approaching and with it the annual debate over real vs fake.

Artificial tree lovers will soon be resurrecting their family favourite, bringing the dusty box out of the attic along with memories of years gone by. Those who opt for a cut tree have a few more weeks to wait but many feel the nostalgic smell of pine and sense of tradition is well worth it.

Whether you are wrestling with a wire mess or trying to tie a too-big fir to the roof of the car, the eco-conscious among us might be wondering what the environmental impact of this Christmas tradition is. As with every responsible choice, it's not a straightforward answer. Which one you should choose depends on a vast myriad of factors from where you buy your tree to how you get rid of it come January.

Fresh cut Christmas trees provide a traditional experience

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What tree should you buy if you are trying to curb your carbon emissions this Christmas?

There is a lot of conflicting information out there about what type of tree is the most sustainable. It is often claimed that an artificial tree is actually greener as the CO2 emitted by its production is spread across the years you use it. This can be true but it is a long term commitment, however, as The Carbon Trust states that a plastic pine must be used for 10 Christmases for it to have a lower footprint than a real one. That’s a long when you consider that 14% of artificial tree buyers in the UK were planning to dump theirs after just one use according to research carried out in 2017.

“If you’ve got a fake tree already, keep using it – make it last as long as possible,” says Friends of the Earth tree campaigner, Emi Murphy, “but look into more environmentally-sound options when it eventually comes to replacing it.” When looking for an artificial tree, Friends of the Earth recommend you try to find one secondhand from charity shops or selling sites instead of buying new,

Plastic decorations, if not left off completely, need to be removed before disposing of your tree

If you aren’t ready to make that kind of devotion to a plastic pine, then a real, fresh cut tree might be a better option for you. Make sure that you look for FSC-certified trees as an assurance that it has been grown sustainably in an environmentally responsible way. It’s also important to look for places selling locally grown trees as a vast number are sent all over Europe from commercial tree producers in Denmark and Germany. Woodland charity, Grown in Britain found that £3 million worth of imported trees were being sold to unaware Britons in 2017 and this is often the case across the continent.

The traditional options, however, might soon be a thing of the past. A shift in attitude this year has triggered real innovation as businesses attempt to appeal to the responsible consumer. Christmas shopping doesn’t seem to have escaped that conscious shift and novel solutions, like London Christmas Tree Rental, have received an incredible amount of interest, selling out once before the season has even begun. They now have some 3-4ft trees back in stock but people have been keen to get on board with this new concept.

"It just felt so wasteful," Catherine Loveless, co-founder of the company tells euronews Living, "for these beautiful trees to grow just for the sake of 3 weeks of our pleasure." It was then that she and co-founder Jonathan Mearns discovered the damage done by those trees when they ended up in landfill.

To reduce waste and environmental impact, the company offers a living tree, delivered straight to your front door at the beginning of December. Provided in a pot, you can decorate it, put it in pride of place and even name it. Once January rolls around, they will contact you to arrange collection so that the tree can be taken back to the farm and looked after to live another year. If you name your tree there is even a chance that next year you can get the same tree back.

"It will have grown, changed shape slightly over the year and we love the idea of being excited to welcome it into your home like a long lost friend!" says Loveless.

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A Christmas tree graveyard

Once the big day has passed, getting rid of your tree in an eco-friendly fashion can cause more environmental concern. As many of us who have walked through the January tree graveyard can attest, a lot of real trees end up dumped unceremoniously on roadsides or pavements. Assuming that you’ve already ditched the plastic decorations, it will just degrade naturally, right?

Despite being wholly plant material, cut real trees still need to be properly recycled. An average 2m tall tree left to decompose in landfill releases around 16kg of CO2 whilst also producing methane, a gas that has 25 times more global warming potential. The Carbon Trust says that burning or chipping your tree can reduce this carbon footprint by up to 80% down to just 3.5kg of CO2.

Instead of abandoning your pine on the pavement, a small bonfire could provide a far better way to dispose of your tree. If you don’t fancy the smokey smell, local authorities in many countries offer a tree collection scheme which will see your wilted Christmas decoration chipped and used to cover pathways or composted to feed plants in public spaces.

Artificial trees cannot be recycled but that doesn’t mean that their life has to end when you don’t want them anymore. Voluntary organisations, churches and charities may well accept them if they are in good condition. This counts as a negative against the plastic tree though, as if it makes its way to landfill it could contribute to the planet’s ongoing pollution problem. Ocean Conservancy even found an artificial tree as part of their 2018 International Coastal Cleanup.

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