How green is your Christmas tree?


Paolo Paradiso / shutterstock

Ian D. Rotherham, Sheffield Hallam University

There’s no way around the fact that Christmas has a large carbon footprint, from the travelling we do to the presents we give and the large amounts of food we eat. But it is possible to at least reduce the negative impacts. With climate change and carbon dioxide levels now major sources of concern, surely it is time to see what can be done to be friendlier to the environment, and the Christmas tree is a good place to start.

As editor of an academic journal on arboriculture – the cultivation of trees – this is something I know a bit about. There are various aspects to assess: how the trees are grown, how many years they are used for, and how they are disposed of or recycled. For artificial trees, we also need to consider what they are made of and how and where they are manufactured.

For real trees, there is a question of where they comes from and how they were grown. Sourcing your tree locally will cut down on transportation costs and emissions and support local jobs too. Habitat may be another issue, since trees grown on moors, heaths, and peat bogs are hugely damaging with massive losses of peat-carbon and biodiversity, and increased downstream flooding. It’s better to instead choose trees grown on arable fields or “improved” grassland of little ecological interest.

Don’t worry about the emissions

When buying a Christmas tree, people may worry about carbon dioxide released back into the atmosphere when it is cut down and then, once used, disposed of. But there are issues and complications with this. Yes, you are cutting down a young tree which will either be thinned from a plantation of larger trees or be part of a single-aged crop all cut down at the same time. In the first instance, the loss of your tree will make no difference whatsoever to the carbon balance of the plantation since the other trees nearby will grow in compensation because competition for light and nutrients is reduced.

Even when a tree has been harvested as part of a single-aged crop, a proportion of its organic matter (and carbon) will remain as the dead root material and fallen leaves to be reincorporated into the soil’s carbon-bank. And if you recycle the tree after use as woodchip, then all that material is returned to the soil as well, and only a small proportion will return immediately to the atmosphere.

If you burn the old tree, then clearly both carbon dioxide and other pollutants go immediately into the air. However, even in this scenario, your tree can only return to the atmosphere the carbon which it took out in the first place – so there is zero net carbon loss. Our real concerns for carbon release are from burning of fossil fuels from below ground, and from damage to long-term carbon storage in peat bogs and fens. Disposal at landfill is much more damaging than incineration.

There is not much to choose between the different species of Christmas tree, at least in terms of carbon impact. There are issues, though, in terms of how trees are grown and particularly the use of pesticides in their cultivation, and potential damage to precious wildlife habitats. A recent example is the damage wrought to a peat bog in Cumbria by inappropriate planting of conifer trees.

An artificial tree, on the other hand, can have a relatively significant carbon footprint depending on what it is made from, and most of all, how many years it remains in service. Spread over ten years, the impact is negligible, but if it has been manufactured abroad, then the immediate carbon footprint is considerable.

How to reduce your tree’s footprint:

1) Buy a real tree, put it in a pot and use it over several years and finally plant it outside to live on. That way you will even mop up a little of your carbon footprint from other Christmas celebrations.

2) Recycle your real tree after use as woodchip or compost. Don’t bin or burn it.

3) Buy local and from a charity.

4) Avoid trees brought in from a distance and especially from an environmentally damaging source – ask the retailer where they are from. Better still, go direct to a local farm shop or National Trust site that is both producing and selling trees.

5) Ask for organically grown trees if possible.

6) Some growers make a donation per tree to an environmental charity – so ask when you buy.

Any “consumption” of goods has environmental impacts, but that is an unavoidable part of life. Christmas trees provide lots of pleasure for many people – just try to boost the good aspects and avoid or minimise the bad ones.The Conversation

Ian D. Rotherham, Professor of Environmental Geography and Reader in Tourism and Environmental Change, Sheffield Hallam University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Now Christmas is done, what on earth should you do with the tree?



File 20181213 110231 evk3y3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Christmas shouldn’t be the only time of the year to have greenery in the household.
Rain0975/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Cris Brack, Australian National University

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: deciding what to do with your Christmas tree.

If you bought a plastic tree, you might have already made the commitment to store and reuse it next year. However, if you were just looking at the greenhouse gas credentials of Christmas tree options, a full life cycle analysis indicates you’ll need to reuse that plastic tree at least 20 times to break even. So you had better store your plastic tree really carefully (even if you are prepared to accept it might be a little bedraggled by 2038, and no longer even in style).

What about the living or cut trees? Do you throw you throw them out, stash them in the backyard for a midwinter bonfire, or start a compost heap? You might be surprised to learn that your real Christmas tree can bring you all sorts of joy both before and beyond December 25.




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Selecting a real Christmas tree as a family is an enjoyable annual ritual for many, but actually the tree itself can also directly reduce stress. Yes, the presence of natural living things – and even objects made from natural things like wood – has been demonstrated to improve physiological well-being. The more you have in your home or office, the more likely you are to express satisfaction with your work and well-being.

So, having a living or a cut Christmas tree in a wooden planter box, positioned in front of a large window, over the Christmas period would have allowed you to gain the full stress-reduction effects, reduce your greenhouse gas footprint, and enjoy the festive season.

Plastic trees don’t give the same benefits as real plants.
Kristina Alexanderson/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The love you give (to trees)

The improvements in well-being associated with nature-based objects is part of what is now termed biophilia. It is not only plants or trees in a pot in your room that can promote these improvements. Wooden furniture, natural light, nature seen through large windows, and even images of nature can all combine to enhance the biophilic experience.

But if images of nature can help with biophilia, wouldn’t a realistic plastic tree also work? In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that photographs of plants could indeed result in volunteers responding that they felt positive emotional, physiological, cognitive and behavioural responses.

However, when exposed to the real plants that were the subject of the photographs, the response was even more positive, and people went out of their way even just to walk past the plants. Plastic Christmas trees are generally more “symbolic” than realistic and it is unlikely that these could directly induce any feelings of biophilia.




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Cut trees, and even live trees left inside too long, will lose leaves or needles and eventually need to be discarded. But even these processes may engage aspects of biophilia if done sensitively.

Dead needles and twigs can be crushed and used as mulch, and if the tree stem is too big to break into mulchable parts, you might be able to whittle or craft a small wooden artefact or piece of jewellery. Composting or reusing the material produced by a once-living Christmas tree, as a part of the Christmas tradition, would certainly increase the biophilic response.

While out in the garden or veranda spreading a little mulch, you could also begin a new tradition – planting next year’s living Christmas tree in a pot! Almost any tree could be used as a living Christmas tree, depending on how big you want it and how much tinsel or popcorn string you plan on wrapping around it.

However there are a number of native species (like the Norfolk Island Pine) which work well as Christmas trees, and which you might be able to plant in your yard when they get too big.




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Growing your own tree, complete in its little wooden planter box on your veranda or balcony, will give you a hit of biophilia and a glimpse of next Christmas every day.The Conversation

Cris Brack, Associate professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.