Readers Digest
Magazine subscription Podcast
HomeLifestyleEnvironment

Why real Christmas trees are better for the environment

BY Ellie Sivins

16th Dec 2022 Environment

Why real Christmas trees are better for the environment

Less CO2 emissions, health benefits and recycling options mean real trees are more environmentally friendly than artificial ones

We often think that buying an artificial tree will save a lot of waste in the long run because, well, we can reuse it every single year. However, this argument doesn’t consider that the tree is made of materials that still won’t have decomposed long after we’re gone and, when the tree is being made, a lot of CO2 emissions are being let off into the atmosphere. By opting for an artificial tree people believe that they are helping the environment by not cutting down trees, however, increased demand for real trees is actually helping the environment.

Carbon emissions of creation

A family pose with a Christmas tree they've bought at a Christmas tree nurseryReal trees cause very little emissions to be harvested and prepared to be bought. Credit: Hero Images

At the heart of the debate is the carbon emissions created by each tree. Artificial trees, when they are created, emit on average 40kg of CO2. This is not including the transport emissions of them, as they are not often made locally. To harvest a real Christmas tree, very little emissions are caused, and when there is a plethora of Christmas tree farms here in the UK, these trees are locally sourced, and will use a tiny amount of CO2 during transport when compared to the plastic trees flown across continents.

Carbon emissions of disposal

However, how a tree is disposed of is detrimental to how much CO2 it emits. British carbon trust estimates that a real tree recycled into splinters for woodwork or burnt as firewood on average emits 3.5kg of CO2. Whereas if the tree ends up in landfill, the gases it releases as it decomposes increases its footprint to approximately 16kg of CO2, and doing the same with a new tree every year will add up.

"Trees are locally sourced, and will use a tiny amount of CO2 during transport when compared to the plastic trees flown across continents"

However, this doesn’t consider the amount of CO2 that tree has captured over its lifetime and effectively cancels out. By the time the tree is harvested, it will have absorbed a total of 18kg of CO2. In other words, a hectare planted with Christmas trees absorbs approximately 11,000kg of CO2 annually, sufficiently making up for the little amount of CO2 its disposal creates.

Degradation of trees

If left to biodegrade, a real tree will return to the earth in one to two years depending on conditions. An artificial tree, however, will take hundreds of years to degrade, releasing more toxins into the air as it does. Further, even if an artificial tree is recycled, as many of them contain oil by-products, the process will continue to generate even more CO2. Also, artificial trees often contain chemicals that poison children and pets, as well as contaminate the air.

Health benefits

Real trees do not have these problems, and according to research, they can have positive effects on our health. Evergreen trees produce not only clean oxygen when photosynthesising, which they will continue to do so indoors if near a window and regularly watered, but, also phytoncide, a chemical that can fight infections and boost our immune systems.

Tree nurseries


Tree nurseries mean that trees aren't sourced from protected forests. Credit: Yelizaveta Tomashevska

However, cutting down trees, and deforestation is bad for the environment, so what makes cutting down Christmas trees any different? Christmas trees have specific nurseries that they are harvested from, meaning that protected forests aren’t cut down, and, with every tree harvested a new one is planted. The trees aren’t harvested until they are between ten and 12 years old, and the farms constantly have trees growing while they’re harvesting this year’s batch of trees.

"Because of the demand for real trees in the UK, we are able to keep hold of green belt land for these nurseries, and sufficiently absorb millions of kilograms of carbon"

It is estimated that seven million trees are sold each year, according to the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, which means that the trees sold in a single year have absorbed over 126 million kg of CO2 in their lifetime. Because of the demand for real trees in the UK, we are able to keep hold of green belt land for these nurseries, and sufficiently absorb millions of kilograms of carbon every single year. Whereas plastic trees will only increase the amount of CO2 in the air.

If you do use an artificial tree

If you use an artificial tree, the best thing you can do is keep using it to save it from going to landfill, and over time it would spread the cost of its initial emissions over each year you’re using it.

Recycling real trees

A young woman decorating a real Christmas tree with lightsYour real Christmas tree can be recycled in multiple ways after the festive season. Credit: Dima Berlin

For real Christmas trees, there are several ways to dispose of them in a sustainable way. Individually, you can chip the tree into mulch for your own garden, or many councils will set up tree collection or drop off points to use the mulch in community projects.

"You can chip the tree into mulch for your own garden, or many councils will set up tree collection or drop off points to use the mulch in community projects"

If you’re wanting to find a solution to recycling the tree, there are tree farms where you can rent a potted tree, and then once Christmas is over, it will be collected and replanted until next year. Another option is buying a potted tree and planting it in your own garden as replanting significantly reduces its carbon footprint, and ensures you always have a tree waiting to be decorated.

Banner photo credit: JackF

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...
Stories by email|Subscription
Readers Digest

Launched in 1922, Reader's Digest has built 100 years of trust with a loyal audience and has become the largest circulating magazine in the world

Readers Digest
Reader’s Digest is a member of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (which regulates the UK’s magazine and newspaper industry). We abide by the Editors’ Code of Practice and are committed to upholding the highest standards of journalism. If you think that we have not met those standards, please contact 0203 289 0940. If we are unable to resolve your complaint, or if you would like more information about IPSO or the Editors’ Code, contact IPSO on 0300 123 2220 or visit ipso.co.uk