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Fake or real? What kind of Christmas tree is best for the environment?

Trying to have a greener Christmas? You should consider buying a real tree.

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Want to have a Christmas that doesn’t have a big impact on the environment? We’re here to help with a new series, speaking to experts about how to be as sustainable and green this festive season as you can, no matter your budget.

Green Christmas is supported by Volvo, a car manufacturer which has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040.

In the third of our Green Christmas articles, we look at Christmas trees – is a real or artificial tree better for the environment?

CHRISTMAS DOESN’T REALLY begin until your tree is decorated. 

But one of the most treasured of Christmas rituals is also the cause of some of the most muddled debates and discussions – is a real or an artificial tree best for the environment? 

With climate change concern going increasingly mainstream, the question has become more and more pressing. 

And with children now more hyper-aware than ever before of the threats to the environment, it’s important to think carefully before bringing a Christmas tree into your home. 

The first thing to bear in mind, says University College Cork’s Jean O’Dwyer, an expert on climate change and the Irish environment, is that the issue is “more complicated than people make out”.

If you’re buying a real tree, it means trying to assess where your tree comes from, how it has been grown and whether it can be recycled. 

“Real trees,” she says, “are the way to go as long as they’re grown sustainably”.

The government has been actively trying to encourage people to buy Irish trees, promising that they’re “environmentally friendly” as long as the trees are recycled and that growers are committing to sustainable growth practices. 

The Forest Service, for instance, says that new Christmas trees are continually being planted to replace the trees that are harvested. 

If you want to sound like a forest management expert when buying your tree, you could do worse than citing Forestry Focus’s definition of sustainable forest management: 

The stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfill, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions, at local, national, and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems.

Yesterday, a columnist for TheJournal.ie Michael Kelly took a look at the debate on Christmas trees and said a real tree brings “a certain magic” into the home, not to mention its environmental benefits. 

Buying a tree

Like much advice on sustainability, when buying a tree it’s important to shop local. 

Buying trees from local Irish producers, as long as the land is properly cared for during the rest of the year, is the best approach.

You should try and aim for non-shedding trees, such as the Noble Fir and the Lodge Pole Pine – that way you can avoid needles and leaves getting into every nook of your home.

“If there’s sustainable forest management, real trees will always be more sustainable,” says O’Dwyer. 

Do some research

It also pays to do some research. Shopping sustainably often means taking that extra step of finding out what exactly you’re buying and where it comes from. 

Even when buying local, make sure that the Christmas tree producer isn’t importing trees and that all trees have been grown in Ireland. 

shutterstock_1258696648 When buying a Christmas tree, even locally, do your research. Source: Shutterstock/David Tran Photo

There are around 100 growers across the country, so chances are someone is selling trees near you. Information about some growers can be found on the Love a Real Tree website, but the easiest thing to do is simply to ask the growers themselves. 

“You’ve got to do a cradle to grave assessment,” says O’Dwyer. 

One of the benefits, of course, is that you can personally make sure your tree is either recycled through chipping or re-planted. 

Fake to real

If you own an artificial tree and want to switch to a real one, things could be a little more difficult. 

One small mitigating factor is that artificial trees do last a long time. But being products that are typically imported, often from China, does not make them particularly environmentally friendly. 

They’re also made of plastic, often PVC – making them very difficult to recycle.

If you own one, the best thing you can do is to use it for as long as possible before binning it. Some people have suggested you would need to keep your artificial tree for 20 years to equal the impact of buying a single real tree every year – but the science is inexact. 

It’s also not a perfect calculation if you want to be both ethical and environmental – most people would recommend supporting local businesses and jobs even if you did manage to keep your tree for 20 years. 

After that, buy real trees if you want to try and assuage an ecological guilt. 

Tips for buying trees

  • There are often no good environmental reasons to buy artificial trees. If you can, avoid them. 
  • Buy local. There are plenty of places across the country where you can buy Christmas trees, so there is bound to be one near you. 
  • Make sure your tree is going to be recycled or re-planted after Christmas. 

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