Miranda Bryant

Miranda Bryant works on the foreign desk at The Independent. She fell into journalism at the deep end when she found herself interviewing Martin Amis in a Norwich cocktail bar.

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Can a Christmas tree ever be eco-friendly?

Posted by Miranda Bryant
  • Thursday, 11 December 2008 at 12:04 pm

The debate about whether to go for a genuine Norwegian Spruce or fake it with a plastic Christmas tree has joined the canon of self-defining questions that supposedly indicate what ‘type’ you are. Elvis or Beatles, pub or club, football or rugby and now we have... plastic versus pine. But this year, the Christmas tree debate has adopted a troubling twist. Now it’s not just a question of taste, but also an opportunity for Yummy Mummy and gang to flaunt their eco credentials.

Plastic trees are not biodegradable, but are real trees any better?

By its very nature Christmas trees are wasteful. Let’s take a look at the process: trees are grown en masse to be cut down after a year and a half, merely to be driven home for decoration and ogled at for a couple of days, then chucked out after a maximum of four weeks and the whole palava is forgotten about for another year. It’s an ethical and carbon nightmare. And if it wasn’t a Christmas tree, nobody would even bother trying to have a good conscience about it.

Living in London only inflates this post eco-enlightenment dilemma. The main issue being that in most cases if you want to know where and how your tree was grown, you need to buy from the source. The closest I got to buying an eco-friendly tree in New Cross was from “somewhere in Maidstone”. The only steadfast way of finding out your tree’s eco footprint is a carbon emitting drive to the countryside. 

And if you want your tree to be organic, it obviously needs to be grown in organic soil. The Soil Association certify organic Christmas tree growers, but the closest one is in Suffolk. London to Suffolk is a 160mile round trip by car, making the tree’s carbon legacy to date pretty hefty, depending on how fuel efficient the vehicle.

But what’s more eco-friendly: a reusable plastic tree made in China, or an intensely grown UK tree riddled with pesticides?

Roger Hay, secretary of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, which funds research on the use of pesticides, says the argument is simple: real trees are biodegradable where as plastic ones are not.

Christopher Atkinson, a Soil Association development manager said the plastic vs pine debate exposes numerous ethical questions and carbon calculations: “You would have to undertake a large analysis, but obviously plastic takes a lot of resources to produce.”

It seems there is not a simple solution to the eco tree problem as it’s about picking the best of a bad bunch. So those who really care about the environment, grow your own tree and postpone Christmas for a few years, or quite simply don’t have one.

To mere mortals, recycling the tree would be a good start. Last year only 750,000 of the six million Christmas trees bought were recycled according to the Soil Association. Most councils offer a free recycling service, finding out when and how they operate takes a little effort, but information can be found on Recycle Now.