The Beacon School Leaderboard 09/05

Kingsley School tackles the Christmas Tree Conundrum

Published by Kingsley School, Bideford on Wednesday 14th of December 2022

When Christmas time rolls around, either the fake tree is lowered from the dusty attic, or a genuine tree is picked, felled, and wrapped in mesh before being attached to the top of the car. This is an event shared the world over and every year we are faced with the same Christmas Tree conundrum; fake or real, dead or alive.

A normal 5-7 foot-high tree is typically between 8 and 12 years old, and between six and eight million real Christmas trees are sold in the UK each year, according to the British Christmas Tree Growers Association. This equates to roughly 75 - 100 million kg of carbon. The equivalent of 138,888 transatlantic flights sitting in people’s front rooms, offices and public squares with an average carbon footprint of around 10 - 15kg of CO2 per tree. Alternatively, you can choose a reusable plastic tree with a definable carbon footprint of 40 kilogrammes for a 5-foot tree. Which is more sustainable, is the question now?

Lots of things can increase or decrease the carbon footprint of a tree. For instance, its production method, transportation, lifespan and disposal. But how does this relate to your tree?

Production

First, let's address the big question: how is it produced, grown or manufactured? As real trees grow, they sequester carbon, locking it in their cells, thus sucking it out of the atmosphere and lowering the carbon footprint of the tree (potentially.... we shall explain later). In contrast, the production of fake trees, even those made of recycled materials, results in a higher carbon footprint per tree than that of real trees because of the resources and energy required to make them. An obvious result 1 – 0 for the real trees.

Transportation

It’s obvious, right? How did the tree get to you from the place it was created or grown? The carbon footprint of an item depends on how far it has travelled from a factory or farm; the closer the distance, the lower the carbon footprint.

Of course, this is easier to achieve with real trees than with artificial ones unless you live close to a Christmas tree manufacturer or are purchasing a pre-loved fake tree (and it has had a sufficient lifespan). Let's declare it a draw on this round, so 2 - 1 to the real trees.

Disposal

What happens to the tree after Christmas? The vast majority of trees, they end up lying forlorn on curbsides turning brown and dropping their needles.

The British Carbon Trust discovered that if a 5-foot tree is taken to a landfill to decay, its CO2 equivalent footprint considerably increases to 16 kg as opposed to a tree that is chipped and put in a garden, whose footprint is 3.5 kg, and if you don't have a garden, get it recycled.

What about the fake tree? If reused for another year, negligible. If disposed of, it depends greatly on the lifespan of the said tree (see below) and if it is being recycled. So a win for fake trees due to their repeated use, 2 – 2.

Lifespan

The longer something can be used, the more an item’s carbon footprint can be spread across the years of its service. At some point, there is a tipping point between the balance of a fake tree's carbon footprint and the repeated purchase/use/disposal of real trees. According to the Carbon Trust, it takes a tree between seven and twenty uses of a fake Christmas tree (depending on the size and materials used) before its carbon footprint is balanced out by the fact that it will outlive genuine trees and will therefore be beneficial for the environment. However, let's not count the real trees out just yet; although cut trees are most widely purchased due to cost and practicalities, you can purchase live pot-grown trees. This allows the repeated use of the said tree, thus extending its life, locking in more carbon and spreading its initial carbon footprint across multiple years – triple whammy! Another draw between fake and real, 3 - 3; we have a tie!

What is the Earth Centre doing about it?

Jack Harty, Earth Centre Manager at Kingsley School said: “So, what are we doing at the Earth Centre to overcome this conundrum? A bit of everything. We have decided to go for a combination of trees. We have purchased pot-grown trees that will then be cared for on the school grounds and used for a number of years before being retired and planted in the ground for good; their festive duties complete. This addresses the issue of lifespan and disposal; as for the production and transportation of the trees we have chosen a Christmas tree farm as local to the school as possible to reduce those elements of a Christmas tree's carbon footprint. With the larger trees required at school, we had to go for cut trees due to the size required not being possible in pot grown trees (although we might try to grow ours that large...watch this space). This obviously creates the issue of disposal due to its limited lifespan. Each tree following its role here at school is destined for the chipper to then be used as woodchip for the no-dig veg patches we have on-site, encouraging the transfer of carbon into the soil and encouraging the growth of our produce, further locking in more carbon and reducing its footprint. As an additional method of addressing the carbon deficit caused by the cutting down of a tree, the farm of choice also plants 3 trees for each chopped tree sold.”

What can you do?

Think carefully about a fake or real tree this Christmas. The decision may already be made for you, if you have a fake one already, continue to use it for as long as possible. If you’re going for real tree then look at ways that you can reduce its impact with regards to disposal and if possible, try to increase its lifespan by buying pot grown. And if you have neither, well, the choice is yours but think about production, transport, lifespan and disposal in an attempt to answer the Christmas tree conundrum.
Kingsley School tackles the Christmas Tree Conundrum - Photo 1
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