Real vs. Fake Trees: How Sustainable is Your Christmas Tree?

It’s the most wonderful time of year- filled with presents, family, the smell of lovely food and decorating Christmas trees with all the (maybe a little too) different kinds of christmas baubles you found in your attic. But there is debate going on that seems to pop up again and again during Christmas over the last fews year. What’s better for the environment, putting a real or fake Christmas tree in the middle of my living room?
christmas tree

Christmas Tree Graveyards

Every year when the Christmas excitement starts (which somehow seems to be earlier and earlier every year, but I’m not complaining) I start thinking about all the Christmas trees that one can see on the streets around New Year. 

Quite literally; it looks like a Christmas tree graveyard as soon as the 24th, 25th, and 26th of December are over. 

Not to be grim, but every time I see that I wonder: is it sustainable that these trees that often require 6 to 12 years to grow before being chopped and used as Christmas trees are also so quickly disposed of when the festive days are over?  

All these millions of trees are wasted. It just seems a bit off. 

Would it maybe be more sustainable to buy a good fake Christmas tree, that you could use for years and years instead of cutting down all these trees? Every. Year?

Great question! Let’s dive into it.

Real vs. Fake Christmas Trees

As our main Ecochain office is situated in Amsterdam, we’re going to take The Netherlands as an example here.

In the Netherlands, an average of 2,5 to 2,7 million real Christmas trees are sold and disposed of every year. 

A real Christmas tree would be bought every year and thrown away afterward. A fake Christmas often has an average of 6 years of use from its buyers. This sounds more sustainable, so the fake Christmas tree wins.

Well…Not so quick. This is not the way to determine the sustainability of these trees.

To do so we need to look at their product life cycles. What does it take before you can even buy one of these trees?

Source: Unsplash

One fake Christmas tree = 40kg of CO₂-eq.

Performing a Life Cycle Assessment for a real tree means looking at all the steps between sowing the seeds and the final waste disposal (such as burning, landfills, or chopping). 

Here we would look at aspects such as the use of energy sources in the life cycle, acidification of soil, carbon emissions, etc.  

With regard to fake Christmas trees, this process is the same. We look at the environmental impact of all the lifecycle steps- from the mining of resources for plastic and metal to the trees’ final waste disposal. 

For a real tree, the biggest impact takes place during the cultivation of the trees and their transport. For fake Christmas trees, the biggest impact takes place during production (often in China) and during their transport as well. 

Overall, the impact of the production of fake Christmas trees is 40kg of CO₂-eq, which is twice as large as that of a real tree that ends up in a landfill with a carbon footprint of 16 kg of CO₂-eq (source: The Carbon Trust). And even more than ten times as large as that of a real tree that is afterward burned, re-planted, or chipped with a carbon footprint of 3,5 kg of CO₂-eq (source: The Carbon Trust). 

But, the big ‘but’ is: can you compare the impact of a real tree that is bought every year, to a fake tree that is used multiple years

Are real trees better?

This answer really depends on how many times you use your fake Christmas tree.

Real trees don’t have the carbon emissions that fake trees need to be produced. In fact, real trees actually take in CO₂. Usually, this entails the intake of 2 tonnes of CO₂ per hectare of Christmas trees. 

Moreover, one hectare of Christmas trees provides the necessary daily amount of oxygen for 44 people for as long as the trees live!

Next to the fact that Christmas trees also produce oxygen, they also filter other gasses such as methane or Ozon and filter the air of large amounts of particulate matter in the areas where they are grown.


Aren’t trees just great.

And probably the most important factor here is that real trees are completely biodegradable. 

Indeed, as previously mentioned; the impact of the production of a fake Christmas tree is ten times as large as that of a real tree when it is burned, re-planted, or chipped afterward. 

So: overall, real trees are really better for the environment if you take all the above into account. 

However, if you use your fake Christmas tree for a minimum of 10 years you will also most likely have made up for the carbon emissions difference with real trees (this amount is still debated on though).

It basically comes down to this: buying a fake tree is more sustainable if you use it for as long as possible (more than 10 years). 

Christmas Tree Fake

Keep or slightly adjust Christmas Tradition? 

Farming trees is basically just like farming any other type of crop. They are cultivated (and recycled) for the pure purpose of consumption. 

And if they are produced and recycled correctly, they do not have a large environmental impact.

Indeed, just with any other crop- they should be cultivated sustainably. And sustainable agriculture and biodiversity are important things that should be taken into consideration, also when it comes to Christmas trees. 

So, if you want to act more sustainable, you can slightly adjust your Christmas Tradition by buying a sustainable and local Christmas tree and make sure to let the municipality (which is the case in The Netherlands) collect your Christmas trees afterward for proper recycling. 

Sustainable Tree Initiatives 

As people are becoming more and more conscious of even their Christmas Trees, many sustainable initiatives have popped up to make your Christmas become more sustainable. 

First, if you want to buy a sustainable Christmas tree, you can always buy the ones with a sustainable label on them. 

In the Netherlands, these trees have the EKO Label or the MILIEUKEUR label. Many other countries have these labels as well. Just check them out!

Secondly, buy your Christmas tree from a local. By supporting your local Christmas tree producers you are cutting down on transport emissions and supporting local jobs and income.

Thirdly, you can now adopt a tree as well by buying/burrowing a potted tree. Potted trees can be replanted afterward and are, therefore, the most sustainable Christmas tree option. 

Even better; if you need a new hobby and want to take on gardening, we suggest you could also grow your own Christmas tree in your backyard. Make it a cute Christmas tradition and watch it grow every year.

An eco-friendly Christmas

Buying a sustainable Christmas tree is of course not the only sustainable thing you can do during Christmas. 

Support your locals, not only when it comes to Christmas trees, but also when it comes to food or presents/experiences for your loved ones. E

You don’t have to change your Christmas traditions, just look at how you can make small changes by choosing different products or ways to celebrate. Every step is a step, just keep that in mind.

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December 21, 2020

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Zazala Quist


Zazala Quist

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