Sometimes having a conscience can turn the smallest decisions into a minefield. There are times when the most eco-friendly option is obvious. But Christmas trees? Not so straightforward. Get a fake one, and you’re going plastic. But do you really want to cut down a tree that you’ll only use for a few weeks?
Our Small Steps series is designed to help you with those little changes that make a big difference - so here’s our guide to buying an eco-friendly tree this year.
A cheap plastic tree
In last place, there’s no surprise - a cheaply made plastic tree that will last a couple of years if you’re lucky. Made from plastic (that’s made from oil); shipped half way around the world and almost certainly non-recyclable. If you really want to max out your impact, add integral lights: guaranteed to make it obsolete even more quickly; and a real problem in landfill as the toxic elements leach into the soil. Let’s move on.
A real tree
The UK buys - and discards - around six million real trees every Christmas. Planting, maintaining, felling, transporting and recycling that many trees takes a lot of resource.
But it’s not just the resource that’s the issue - chopping down a tree, only to (hopefully!) shred it a few weeks later, is a symptom of the throwaway society we need to move away from.
In terms of the direct environmental impact, this isn’t a terrible environmental choice - but it’s not great, either.
We all know that trees are good - we need to plant more trees, they store carbon dioxide, and these are trees that will be replaced.
But it’s a little more complicated than that. The chances are your tree will come from a ‘plantation’ rather than a ‘woodland’. If you’ve ever wandered through a conifer plantation, you’ll quickly realise that this isn’t a woodland idyll of gently flowing streams, beautiful clearings and biodiversity - it’s a quiet, dark homogenous farm. It’s also fairly hard to get a native tree - most of the conifers you’ll be offered are originally from Europe or the Americas.
Buying a real tree doesn’t make you the Cruella De Vil of Christmas - but there are other options. If you do need to go real, then you can minimise your impact by buying an FSC certified tree grown in the UK; and if possible go for a native Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris).
It’s surprisingly hard to buy an FSC certified tree that’s been grown in the UK - but it’s worth trying.
A good quality fake tree
There’s a mantra that we should all “Buy less, well”. (That comma is really important.) In other words, ditch the cheap tat that will need replacing next year, and spend a little more on buying quality that will last for years. And that’s true for a fake Christmas tree. My mum has used the same tree for more than 40 years. At some point it will need to be disposed of - and it won’t be recyclable - but in terms of its carbon footprint, it’s doing pretty well.
There’s a growing belief that recycling technology will leap forwards very quickly in the next few years, which means that if you buy a tree now, there’s a fair chance that when you’re done with it in 15 or 20 years, the technologies will exist to make it useful.
Rent a tree
Renting is the new buying. Really. Christmas tree rental is a simple idea - a company will deliver a tree to you, in a pot and with its roots. A few weeks later, the company will collect it, look after it….and the process is repeated next year.
Unfortunately this isn’t widely available just yet, and is focused in the the south east of England, but it is worth investigating in your area.
Of course it has its pitfalls - like transportation - but this is definitely one of the greener options.
A real tree..with roots
It’s a beautifully simple idea. You buy a tree in a pot. Every December, you lift it inside and decorate it. After Christmas, you lift the pot back outside - and for the next 11 months, treat it as an attractive piece of garden greenery.
Even better? A tree makes a beautiful, memorable gift for baby’s first Christmas. If your baby is already moving (or you have a toddler) then you’ll appreciate the ability to put your 3-4 foot high tree on a table, rather than the floor.
Imagine watching the tree grow with your baby - each year, looking back on last year’s photos and seeing how much they’ve both grown; perhaps even having the same tree in 18 or 20 years time? You could start a tradition of buying a new decoration each year to mark the growth of the tree and your little one.
Your tree can still spend the rest of the year in a pot - even if you only have a balcony or strip of paving at the front, then it will be a good few years until it grows too big to manage.
Of course this isn’t for everyone. If you keep it in a pot you’ll need to water and feed it throughout the summer - a brown Christmas tree is not a good look. You’ll also need to accept that your children will become extremely fond of it, and give it a name.
Ours is called Pricky.
- In October 2018, the UN’s IPCC said that urgent and unprecedented change is needed to avoid catastrophic environmental breakdown. But massive change happens through a series of little tweaks and alterations. ‘Small steps’ is a series of occasional articles about the small changes that we can make, that add up to make a big difference.