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Now that Christmas is over, what are you going to do with your tree?

How time flies. But as the festive season draws to a close there is one thing left to sort out: what to do with the Christmas tree? Do we recycle it or just throw it away?

The tradition of decorating Christmas trees is still going strong. Yet there is an inevitable seasonal increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Nobody wants to be a Grinch or a Scrooge. But, perhaps it is possible to reduce our carbon footprint by thinking about what we do with our Christmas trees afterwards.

Real or recyclable

It is commonly thought that real Christmas trees are better for the environment than artificial trees. Real trees can be decompose into compost and be recycled or be turned into wood chippings for reuse.

All local authorities will provide some form of recycling service for Christmas trees. But statistics for Christmas tree recycled are not recorded separately from other forms of waste. It is estimated that 160,000 tonnes of real Christmas trees is either flytipped or goes to landfill. That could amount to local authorities having to pay up to £12.8m in landfill taxes – a lot of money that could be better spent on improving recycling and other council services.

Millions of Christmas trees go to landfill in early January each year. Milosz_G

A real Christmas tree that is sent to landfill has a carbon footprint of about 16kg. As it decomposes, it produces methane. But an artificial tree produces more than twice the greenhouse gas emissions than that of a real tree that goes to landfill and more than 10 times that of a real tree that is incinerated. An artificial tree is also thought to have a higher initial carbon footprint because it is made of plastic, which comes from oil.

A greener alternative?

Recycling, landfill and incineration are not the be-all and end-all of waste management. According to the waste hierarchy, which forms the basis of EU and UK waste policy, reuse and prevention should be seen as higher priorities.

While artificial Christmas trees cannot be recycled, they can be stored away in January and reused year after year. Real trees cannot generally be used more than once. If you can hold on to an artificial Christmas tree for at least 10 years, it becomes the greener option. In other words, using one artificial tree for 10 years produces the same amount of carbon emissions as buying a new, real tree a year for 10 years.

As evergreens, real Christmas trees can be reused if they still have their roots. As well as being replanted in gardens, they can shore up flood defences or offset carbon emissions. But they do that anyway without being chopped down for Christmas.

Real Christmas trees may be a minority taste anyway. Some 6m to 8m real trees are sold every year in the UK. But, according to research carried out in 2012 by consumer group Which?, only 20% of households were planning to buy real trees, with 50% of households opting for artificial trees. The falling pound may have given British Christmas tree growers a boost over artificial tree manufacturers.

The debate over whether real or artificial Christmas trees are better for the environment goes on every year. But whether a tree is man-made or natural is not necessarily what matters. What counts in the battle against climate change is what happens after Twelfth Night, when it’s time to take the fairy lights down.

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