The ultimate guide to your sustainable Christmas tree

If you’re being environmentally conscious at Christmas time, one big question you are faced with is: what is a more eco-friendly Christmas tree, real or fake?

Artificial or natural?

In principle, it seems better to grow a tree than to make something out of plastic.  Artificial trees are made of polyvinyl chloride (or PVC), which is a non-renewable, petroleum-derived material.  Also, at the end of life a fake tree won’t be recycled in Australia due to its composition, so it ends up in landfill.  However, an artificial tree will last several years (unless you have one of those cats who feels personally offended by tree decorations), which mitigates the impact of manufacture.

Personally, I enjoy waking up to the smell of fresh pine in December.  A sustainably grown tree is a renewable resource, as it will be replaced by another tree when harvested. Trees capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce oxygen.  In addition, a natural tree is more likely to be sourced locally, which is better when compared to the environmental impact of an alternative transported from overseas.

But if at the end of the holiday season it gets dumped in the kerb and taken to landfill, no-one’s sure what happens.  Either it decomposes, and all the carbon that the tree absorbed and incorporated in its trunk, branches and needles will be released back to the atmosphere as methane (which is bad), or it doesn’t decompose at all (or does so all too slowly) and, like PVC, fills up landfill space.

In fact, life cycle assessment studies suggest that what’s most important in choosing between artificial or natural is how far it travels to our homes and what happens when the tree becomes waste.

If you would like to purchase a farmed Christmas tree, try your local farms.  Pick a farm that will collect and recycle trees by wood chipping, which helps in the process for the following crop of Christmas trees.

For people living in small apartments the potted mini trees that stand around 50cm tall are perfect. If you tend to it right, you can reuse it year after year until it needs to be permanently planted outdoors. Even better: instead of the classic pine or fir, get a native Australian pine like Wollemi or Cypress, one of the Earth’s oldest and rarest trees. By buying one from the trust set up to conserve them, you’ll be contributing to the conservation of the tree in the wild.

Go rogue!

Another alternative is just to skip buying a tree!  Instead:

  1. Temporarily promote an everyday house item to a Christmas tree – decorate an indoor plant, a tree from your garden, a pile of books from your library or even a ladder!
  2. Create your own tree with branches or recycled materials (Pinterest will help you) or, if DIY isn’t your strong suit, get someone to do it for you
  3. Get onboard the sharing economy and rent a tree
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