What would Christmas be without a tree? Every year millions of people haul them home and festoon them with twinkling lights, tinsel and polished silver baubles. It’s a sign that the festive season has truly begun.

But there’s a darker side to that beautiful Christmas tree – it’s not always very eco-friendly.

Image: REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Real or fake?

Image: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The debate about which are greener, real or artificial, has raged for years. Ultimately, it depends on a number of factors such as how far the tree has travelled, how much energy went into producing it and how it is recycled.

Plastic trees, usually made from PVC, are unlikely to be recyclable, and have probably travelled many miles to their destination. For instance, most fake trees (85%) in the US are imported from China.

A PVC tree needs to be reused for at least 20 years to make up for the amount of energy used in its production (although others put that figure at 10 years).

But a real Christmas tree that is sent to landfill also has a carbon footprint: as it decomposes, it produces methane.

Some consumers avoid real Christmas trees because they envisage swathes of forest being cut down.

But, in fact, most Christmas trees come from farms where they are specifically grown for that purpose.

Christmas tree farmers plant new seedlings every spring to replace those harvested, and the saplings can serve as important habitats for birds, insects and other wildlife.

They also provide employment – over 100,000 people are employed full- or part-time in the industry, and that’s just in the US.

Living trees

Image: Dreamstime

One way to get round these issues is to use a living tree. Living trees produce oxygen and suck up carbon dioxide. However, they are fairly small compared to cut Christmas trees, and usually only survive for around 10 days indoors. Another option is to buy a tree with roots, keep it well watered and replant in the garden or a large pot for the following year.

Some companies rent out trees. This one in the UK promises to replant the tree in a forest if it grows too big. This one in the US re-pots trees into larger containers and looks after them until the next Christmas.

Imaginative alternatives

Image: REUTERS/Charles Platiau

There are also some more imaginative alternatives to the traditional Christmas tree, including “trees” made from cardboard, copper, wood or even plastic bottles.

Buying local also helps to reduce the tree’s carbon footprint, as does using energy-saving LED lights with a timer.

Recycling trees

When the festive season is over, how we choose to dispose of our Christmas trees also has an impact on the environment, as many end up in landfill.

At a dedicated recycling site, real trees can be turned into compost or wood chippings for use as biofuel. They can shore up flood defences, or be turned into food for fish and birds.