Christmas has always been considered a jolly break from our mundane routine and responsibilities, filled with friends, family, and plenty of food. However, given the current environmental crisis we have found ourselves in, questions about food waste, overconsumption, and even the lifecycle of Christmas trees can render Christmas with a less joyful tone. Statistics have shown that during the Christmas season, there is 30% more waste in countries like the UK. Can we really afford this much waste? The answer is no. Given a looming decline in the real Christmas tree industry, due to droughts and extreme weather conditions, and the waste generated from artificial tree production, we should start considering alternatives, if we still want Christmas to be “the most wonderful time of the year”.
The British Carbon Trust estimates that the production of a single artificial tree generates 40 kg of CO2 (Acciona, n.d.), which is further increased if the tree is produced abroad and it is, therefore, transported. In order to negate this production-phase carbon footprint relative to that of a ‘real’ tree, an artificial tree needs to be reused for at least 12 years.
The artificial tree industry has faced rapid growth, given changes in consumers’ preferences – specifically baby boomers, who now prefer convenience to tradition. More specifically, a study in 2014 showed that 81% of consumers older than 65 years old choose artificial trees rather than real ones (Ingraham, 2019) because they are easier to store and set up. On the other hand, younger generations have a greater tendency towards real trees in an effort to embrace tradition. However, we should remember that the real tree industry has its own gremlins: real trees end up decomposing in a waste dump, generating around 16 kg of CO2 (Acciona, n.d.).
The real Christmas tree industry has been in decline for almost 11 years now, due to the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis for farming. Between 2002 and 2017, there has been a 30% decrease in tree production, according to the Census of agriculture reports (Ingraham, 2019). The decrease in the availability of land for farming as well as the fact that trees need up to 12 years to mature (phs Wastekit, 2018) has in turn caused a significant drop in the tree supply. The already limited supply of trees is also threatened by the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather conditions and altered rainfall and temperature patterns. More specifically, according to a survey conducted in 2018, in Indiana, 70% of participants claimed that droughts constituted one of the major obstacles to the growth and development of the real tree industry. Additionally, 50% of these participants attributed the decline of the industry to insect infestation, other crop diseases, and unfavourable temperatures for the proper growth of the trees (phs Wastekit, 2018). Another limiting factor to the size and quality of the tree industry is constant changes in consumer preferences, which do not allow the farmers enough time to adjust their crops or invest in different types of trees.
Having discussed what is at stake in both artificial and real tree industries, we should consider what happens when Christmas is over. One cannot help but wonder what happens to all those Christmas trees in homes and offices across the world. According to a survey conducted in 2017, 6 million trees are estimated to be discarded annually (Farmer, 2019). As one of the biggest capitalist holidays, Christmas has historically been the ideal time for increased market competition, therefore causing a drop in the price and quality of artificial Christmas trees. Customers are encouraged to discard their trees rather than store and reuse them: according to the same study, 14% of participants said they would throw out their Christmas tree instead of keeping it for next year. It is disheartening to see that this “buy-discard” consumer mentality is quite common, especially in countries where Christmas is very commercialized. The dominant competitiveness and the goal of having the classiest and most impressive trees and decorations has diverted people’s attention from Christmas being a holiday about family and bringing people together, enhancing consumerism at the expense of our environment.
This is not to say that, to save Christmas, we must abandon the tradition of trees altogether. The solution lies in real Christmas trees – with a catch. As sensible and sustainable consumers, we should make sure that the tree of our choosing is coming from a legitimate nursery and that it has not been violently cut from its environment. Even if the tree does come from a nursery, we need to make sure it has retained its roots and is stored in some kind of pot: this way, the tree will have a chance to survive after Christmas by being replanted – far preferable to trees without roots that usually end up in dumps or are converted into fertilizers, a process that requires energy and, therefore, emits a significant amount of CO2. With a little care and attention, Christmas can be sustainable too.
Acciona (n.d.). Carbon footprint: Natural vs plastic Christmas tree. [online] Available at: https://www.activesustainability.com/sustainable-life/carbon-footprint-natural-vs-plastic-christmas-tree/ [Accessed 12 December 2019].
phs Wastekit (2018). How much waste does the festive season create? [online] Available at: https://www.phswastekit.co.uk/blog/posts/20-11-2018/how-much-waste-does-the-festive-season-create [Accessed 14 December 2019].
Farmer, J.R. (2019). Climate change is making Christmas tree shopping harder than ever. Yahoo News [online] Available at: https://finance.yahoo.com/news/climate-change-making-christmas-tree-100019381.html [Accessed 12 December 2019].
Ingraham, C. (2019). Boomers have outgrown real Christmas trees. The Washington Post [online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/12/05/boomers-have-outgrown-real-christmas-trees/ [Accessed 15 December 2019].