Real or fake: What Christmas tree is best for the planet?

Story highlights

  • Variety of eco-options for Christmas trees
  • Organic trees least damaging to the planet
  • Re-using plastic trees also reduces footprint

(CNN)Like a birthday without cake or a Thanksgiving meal without turkey, Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without a tree.

In the bewilderingly complex consumer world, it can sometimes be hard to see the woods for the trees when picking the prickly centerpiece of the festive season.
Should you choose a fir, pine or a spruce? Or perhaps it's time to try a plastic tree? Buyers have become far more eco-conscious about where their Christmas trees come from and what happens to them come the new year.
    So, if you're feeling angelic and don't want to end up looking like a plum pudding here are some handy tips on how to have a Christmas that's green as well as white.

    Real or fake?

    Which is more environmentally friendly -- real or artificial? The simple answer is: it depends.
    Real trees that still have their roots and can be potted, brought inside for the Christmas period, have a negligible carbon footprint.
    Things are more complex for those without.
    Britain's Carbon Trust estimate that a two-meter tall tree that doesn't have roots has a carbon footprint of between 3.5 kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) and 16 kg CO2e depending on whether it is incinerated -- which is less polluting -- or finds its way to landfill.
    "Unfortunately, we still see a lot of trees going into landfill," says Sophie Neuberg, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth. "And that's very bad for the environment because they decompose very slowly and create methane which is a greenhouse gas."
    How green is your Christmas tree?
    How green is your Christmas tree?


      How green is your Christmas tree?


    How green is your Christmas tree? 02:59
    Methane has 25 times the potency of carbon dioxide, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
    "The best thing to do," advises Neuberg, "is to talk yo your local waste authority and find out if they have facility to take the tree away and turn it into wood chippings or something else that can be used as compost."
    The picture for plastic trees isn't so rosy -- the Carbon Trust estimate a carbon footprint of around 40 kg CO2e for a two-meter tree -- but the beauty is that it can be reused.
    "It's a good idea to get a good quality one that you can use for many years -- someone I know has had their plastic tree for 20 years," Neuberg says.
    This tendency toward reuse of plastic trees is backed up by research published by the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA) who estimate that 85% of US households with an artificial tree will reuse it and that on average artificial trees are reused for 11 years.
    Jami Warner, executive director of ACTA reiterates Neuberg's advice.
    "Quality artificial trees are very easy to break down and very easy to store," Warner says. "If you take good care of it you can use it season after season or you can donate it to a good cause."
    This year, the ACTA estimate that around 100 million US households will display a Christmas tree with a total of around 23 million real trees and 11.5 million artificial trees expected to be sold.

    Organic option

    Organic trees may make up only a small percentage of the total trees sold.
    In the US, consumers spend an average of around $50 on a real tree with organic varieties tending to cost a little more. But for Neuberg it's probably the most ecologically sound choice.
    "If you're buying a real tree, it's best to buy one that comes from somewhere near you, from a well-managed forest, and not from far away because of the transportation and the associated carbon emissions," she says.
    "The other really good thing to do is to try and buy an organic tree. In the UK, the Soil Association can tell you where you buy one, but there are other similar organizations elsewhere you can find out from.
    "Organic can be a little bit more expensive but they will often be nicer Christmas trees as well -- grown in a way that is better for the environment. They won't use pesticides, they won't have damaged wildlife -- and you can see that in the quality of the tree."

    No-tree Christmas?

    For a truly green Christmas there is always the option of doing away with a tree altogether and simply improvising with the plants already in your house.
    "That's what we do at home," says Neuberg. "We have a lovely plant in our living room and we decorate that for Christmas. It's something that is familiar to us and adds a real sparkle to the festive season."
    Whatever tree -- artificial, real or otherwise -- you end up putting pride of place in your house this month, ACTA-sponsored research suggests that your carbon footprint should be Scrooge-like.
    "The bottom line is that neither tree has a significant impact on the environment," Warner says. "If you want to lessen your impact on the environment, don't drive."