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Real vs fake Christmas trees: Which are better for the planet?

There's a clear winner when it comes to the environmental impact of real and fake Christmas trees.

While most of us have been led to believe artificial trees are the way to go when it comes to being an eco-conscious citizen of the planet, it turns out our beloved fake pines may not be as environmentally friendly as we thought.

In Australia, it's unclear how many Christmas trees are cut each year, but data from an international study in 2016 showed that only 9 per cent of Aussies had a real Christmas tree compared to 59 per cent who owned artificial trees. The remaining 32 per cent opted to have no tree at all.

There are several reasons for having plastic trees. They not only last for years, but advocates say they're also easy to assemble, cost-effective, maintenance-free and may even look quite realistic. This all might make choosing a real tree seem counter-intuitive, but environmental experts say otherwise.

Fake Christmas tree; Cut pine tree in the back of a car
The majority of Aussies prefer artificial Christmas trees over the real thing. Source: Getty

Why real Christmas trees are better

"Plastic trees are derived from fossil fuels, oil and gas, and there is no viable, safe or responsible option for managing them at the end of their life," Kate Noble, World Wildlife Fund Australia's No Plastics in Nature Policy Manager shared with Yahoo News Australia. "[Real] trees are part of our system, perform a valuable service while they're alive, and effectively return to nature if they are managed well at the end of their life.

"There are greenhouse emissions associated with every aspect of the plastic lifecycle," she added, explaining that apart from the emissions from producing plastic trees and shipping them around the world, they're later buried or in some cases, burned. "There is a whole lot more that goes into plastic production that you just don't have in growing a tree in a plantation," Noble explained.

Aren't we supposed to avoid cutting trees?

In Australia, the most commonly sold real Christmas trees are grown in tree plantations. While there is no data on exactly how many trees are sold and disposed of every year, there are more than 50 Christmas tree farms across the country, many of which are in New South Wales and Victoria.

According to one Christmas tree farmer who spoke to Yahoo news, farmed Christmas trees are grown for about seven years before they're cut down, but are replaced with new seedlings every year.

A natural tree has a carbon footprint of about 3.5kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) on average. If it's sent to landfill, this increases dramatically to about 16kg of CO2e. The shorter journey it takes for a real tree to reach a home also has a significantly less carbon footprint.

In comparison, an artificial tree has a carbon footprint of about 40kg CO2e based on the production of the materials used to make it alone. Most artificial Christmas trees in Australia come all the way from China, which adds to the already huge carbon footprint from petroleum chemicals used to make them.

"Even if plastic Christmas trees are used over and over again, they never go away. They don't return to nature at the end of their life. They are not a great option and there are so many alternatives," Noble explained.

"Fossil-based plastics do not break down — none of them do. So PVC and other plastics just don't," she said, explaining further that although these plastics will break up when they enter a landfill, it will never break down microbially and return to nature or soil. "They will just break up into smaller plastics and microplastic."

"The bottom line is, a live tree is part of a natural cycle and that's a really great option."

Two men observing plants at Christmas tree farm
Most of Australia's real Christmas trees are grown on farms. Source: David Gray/AFP via Getty Images

Recycling and alternative trees

One thing Aussies need to take note of when opting for a real tree, however, is to make sure that it's recycled. Most councils suggest Aussies use a green bin to dispose of their trees, while those who don't have this option are encouraged to drop their trees off at specific collection points so they don't end up in landfill. Another solution is to compost the tree after use.

Alternatively, buy a potted tree from a shop such as Bunnings or select Woolworths stores in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, as they're sourced from Australian farms and can live beyond the festive season.

If buying a real tree still doesn't appeal to your inner greenie, Noble suggested alternatives such as getting creative by making a wall-mounted decorative tree.

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