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Choosing a sustainable Christmas tree

Christmas festivities are unthinkable without a decorated coniferous tree. Whether artificial or real, it is the centrepiece of the winter holiday season. For those who celebrate the day, picking the right tree and putting it up is often an occasion. For some, even an important family ritual.

When it is time to bring home a real, fragrant fir, spruce or pine tree, tips on picking the right one usually revolve around spotting the prime one. Sturdy branches, needles that don’t fall off and the trunk that fits the stand are on the list of standard instructions for choosing well but what about sustainability?  

It has already become common knowledge that getting a Christmas tree also means making an impact on the environment but the good news is that there are ways to minimise the negative effects on it by reducing our tree’s footprint.

The first step toward achieving this is understanding the lifecycle of a commercially-grown tree. This can help us make better choices for a more sustainable Christmas.

When buying a farm-grown tree, there are a few things to consider.

Fertiliser-free trees

Christmas tree

The Carbon Trust recommends looking for trees that are grown without fertilisers and come with a Forest Stewardship Council certificate. This is important because in intensive farming of Christmas trees the use of synthetic fertilisers is a common practice and the environmental repercussions of such practice are multiple. The most common of them are soil erosion, pollution of waterways, damage to the health of local ecosystems, fauna and ultimately, greenhouse gasses emissions.  

Cutting the carbon footprint of your Christmas tree

Yes, Christmas trees have a carbon footprint and emit greenhouse gases but it is not only due to cutting, burning after use or manufacturing and in the end, dumping artificial trees.

Buying a real tree that was grown on the other side of the world, or even far enough to require long-distance transportation has a significant carbon footprint of its own. Just imagine the burning of fossil fuels their shipping involves through air freight, trucks and marine transport. To cut these emissions, buying a locally grown, fertiliser-free tree would be a more sustainable way to celebrate Christmas.

Choosing pot-grown trees is another greener option for carbon footprint reduction. Such trees have their roots kept intact which means that they stay alive and can be reused year after year.

Renting Christmas trees minimises emissions too. Instead of buying and then disposing of them after only a couple of weeks of the display, you can practically borrow a tree that is available for rent next year again.

The end-of-life of a Christmas tree

What to do with the tree after it’s time to take it down? This is an important question if we want to keep the celebration sustainable because how we dispose of the tree can increase or reduce its footprint.

Re-planting or chipping the tree into the mulch for secondary use, in gardens or as compost is a good option. Recycling the tree will cut its carbon footprint by up to 80 per cent (around 3.5 kilograms of CO2 equivalent). In contrast, landfilling a rootless tree will release both carbon and methane through slow degradation. This will lead to a much worse impact on the environment since methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Back to the source or how seeds are harvested

Christmas tree

Buying locally grown Christmas trees may not be entirely sustainable or fair if the supply chains are taken into account. Eighty per cent of Europe’s popular Nordmann fir seeds, for instance, which is then grown in plantations across the EU, including in the CEE region’s Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic come from Georgia, the Caucasus. Reportedly, cone pickers there work under inadequate conditions, low safety standards and receive similarly low wages.

To ensure that we opt for a Christmas tree that was grown from a seed sourced under decent conditions, checking the labels of fair trade would help.

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