Not much compares to the scent of a pine tree wafting through the house at Christmas – even when you have to sweep up the needles every time you, the dog and your guests brush past. But the topic of sustainable Christmas trees creeps up again and again: do they exist? Are you better off getting an artificial Christmas tree? What are the alternatives?

Real Christmas trees: how bad are they for sustainability?

Christmas trees are essentially a crop that we harvest. A six-foot tree typically takes about nine years to grow, during which time they provide a habitat for wildlife, consume carbon dioxide and create oxygen – so they are generally carbon positive. Good.

You don’t need to worry about deforestation when buying a real tree. Most Christmas trees are a horticultural crop, so growers do not fell them from pre-existing forests. Very good.

And now for the bad. Sorry. The issues come with the transportation and then disposal. We buy around seven million trees in the UK each year. Once the Christmas season is over, we send a huge number to landfill. Here, they take years to decompose and release methane, which experts say have 25 times the potency of carbon dioxide.

The most eco-friendly way to get a real Christmas tree is to buy a potted one that can replanted year after year, as locally as possible to reduce the carbon footprint.

If potted isn’t for you, the good news is non-potted trees can be recycled into wood chippings. The best way to buy one is to make sure it comes from as local source as possible and to check your local council’s website to find out how their free recycling service operates.

You can also buy organic trees, to ensure no pesticides have been used in their cultivation, so again, check your local sources.

Forest Stewardship Council Certified trees are some of the responsibly-managed trees and often minimise pesticide use.

Renting a Christmas tree

You can rent potted sustainable Christmas trees and send these back to be re-planted after the festive period. You can even request the same one year after year.

There are several tree rental companies around. A couple of options include London Christmas Tree Rental and the fabulously named Rental Claus in the Cotswolds.

Forever Green Christmas Trees in Essex isn’t operating this year due to Covid, but will hopefully be back.

How sustainable are artificial Christmas trees?

Half of Christmas trees sold each year are fake.

Most artificial trees are made in China. Their negative impact on the environment comes from the fact they are made from plastic, PVC and metal. And then they are shipped overseas.

If you’re buying an artificial tree, the general advice is that you need to use it for at least 11 years to offset the oil the plastic is made from, according to the Carbon Trust. However, most of us have commitment issues when it comes to fake Christmas trees, keeping them for an average of four years.

Why do we have Christmas trees?

There have been many predecessors to the modern day Christmas Tree. The Romans used fir trees in their temples when honouring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. In Northern Europe, they put up Evergreen Trees during winter solstice to keep away evil spirits and illness.

Our Christmas Tree tradition is thought to date back to the 1830s. It comes from Germany. German theologian Martin Luther is said to have started the craze after being inspired at a night’s walk through the forest and wanting to bring the outdoors in.

In 1841 Prince Albert set up a tree in Windsor Castle. In 1846 the Royal family was sketched in front of their Christmas tree. Of course, the Christmas tree trend swiftly took off. What will Will and Kate or Harry and Meghan make us covet next?

Sustainable Christmas tree alternatives

Some people choose to beautifully decorate existing plants in their home with lights and baubles rather than buy a traditional Christmas tree.
Another popular idea is to collect branches from the park or forest and tie them together using twine.

Sustainable Christmas trees
Image: @say_no_to_waste_nz (Instagram)

This is surprisingly easy to do, is a fun day out and looks great hung off a wall. It has the added bonus of being space-saving, too. Finally, you can buy alternative, more eco-friendly trees made from reclaimed wood, such as Not on The High Street or Etsy.

Main image: Tomáš Malík from Pexels