AT THIS time of year, many of us begin to think about Christmas trees and, with the recent COP26 in Glasgow discussing the importance of the decisions we make about the environment, perhaps you’re asking yourself whether you’d be better with a real tree or an artificial tree?

The debate about real vs fake trees has been ongoing for many years and this month we decided you might like an update on current thinking.

Many environmental groups, including the Soil Association, the Woodland Trust and the Carbon Trust, recommend real trees over artificial ones and it’s important to understand why because what you do with your tree can make quite a difference. Let’s look at the different stages in the life of both types of trees.

Real trees

The growing time for real trees is approximately 10-12 years to reach the most popular size of 6/7ft (approximately 1.8-2.1m). During that time, they provide habitat for wildlife, capture carbon from the atmosphere, stabilise ground that is often unsuitable for other uses and reduce water run-off that can cause erosion.

With estimated sales of in excess of seven million real trees sold in the UK every year, it’s clear that forestry also provides much-needed rural employment.

You don’t need to worry about deforestation either: Christmas trees are a renewable resource, generally grown as a crop with up to 10 trees being planted for every two-metre tree that is cut down, ensuring that the environmental benefits of woodland are maintained and potentially even improved.

As the seedling grows into a tree, it’s clear that real trees make positive benefits to our environment but once that tree leaves the forest or the nursery, your choices begin to matter.

How can you help the environment? The first step is easy: buy a Scottish-grown tree from a local business and you minimise the carbon miles from the forest to your home.

Most reputable garden centres in the area should be able to offer you a Scottish-grown tree, but other outlets may not. We recommend that you check the source before you buy!

But it’s what happens to the tree after Christmas where you can make a real difference. Research shows that the way in which the tree is disposed of has considerably different environment effects.

At one end of the spectrum, landfill is the worst possible solution for disposing of your Christmas tree, since decomposition and the release of methane negatively impact on the environment. Surprisingly, even burning the tree is preferable to landfill as that reduces potential emissions by over 80 per cent.

At the other end of the spectrum, one of the most environmentally friendly solutions is to reuse the tree by chipping it for mulch or to compost it.

Chipping simply accelerates the plant cycle that would occur naturally on the forest floor.

This non-chemical process helps the tree break down more quickly than it otherwise would in the forest, naturally returning fibre and nutrients to the soil.

Local authorities often offer a collect and chip service, and East Lothian Council have done so for a number of years now.

Artificial trees

Artificial trees, it is argued, are environmentally friendly because they can be re-used year after year and, for many, it’s the ideal solution for reasons of practicality and convenience. In fact, the key to determining whether an artificial or a real tree is more environmentally friendly lies in the number of times you use the artificial tree. Let’s consider the factors.

Most artificial trees are manufactured in China using plastic, PVC and metal, and these are then shipped to consumers around the world.

The materials used in production and the global shipping distances involved in delivery combine to result in a considerable negative environmental impact from artificial trees.

And whilst the tree can be reused year after year, there still remains the problem of disposal at the end of its life; artificial trees are not recyclable and inevitably end up in landfill.

According to the Carbon Trust, the carbon footprints for a 2m tree are:

l Artificial tree – 40kg;

l Real tree to landfill – 16kg;

l Real tree, chipped – 3.5kg.

Therefore, their advice is that you need to re-use your artificial tree more than 10 times to equal the carbon footprint of a real tree that is responsibly disposed of. Many artificial trees are not built to last that long and so if you decide that an artificial tree is best for your lifestyle, try to buy one that genuinely can be reused over at least 10 years.

In conclusion

Caring for our environment is a complex matter, and if it only involved a single issue – such as the carbon footprint figures above – decisions would be easy. But it’s rarely that simple; you only need to think about the many variables mentioned in this article to understand the complexity of the decisions we all have to make.

We hope that this article offers you a brief overview that will help you decide which type of tree is best for you.

As always, our plant team are happy to discuss the options with you and help you decide what tree – real or artificial – is best for you.

They’re also able to explain how you can get the very best from your tree and enjoy it throughout the Christmas season.