A biobased -circular- Christmas tree…?

Its Christmas , the shopping rush is over: and we all have been victims of buying anger, or better: victims of a system that forces us to buy and sell, and overrules all social and cultural behavior. And many will have bought a Christmas tree, at least people in the “industrialised’ part of the world.

Someone asked me last week which one was more sustainable, a artificial Christmas tree or a real one, a ‘natural one’. The question is understandable, in a period that everyone somehow is aware that sustainability makes some sense . If we do things unsustainable, they can’t last . By definition.

More people will have had the same question, so a little exploration might help. To start with: Christmas trees are not sustainable or unsustainable, its like with everything else: its the use that determines if something can be sustained . Artificial trees are mainly made of materials that do not regenerate naturally. So the materials are depleted. And as such are a dead end street. In the sense, that if you know that the materials are depleted, it makes no sense to compare options with say CO2 emissions: Thats an end of pipe approach, while the choice should have been made considering the source origins.

Which however is in general not what we are doing nowadays: we look mainly at side effects in stead of causes. Which can lead to the fact that you want to compensate for the side effects, say the CO2 emissions of your artificial tree, and therefor invest in planting trees in a “CO2 compensation forest” . For instance from pine trees… that is a bit weird isn’t it?

Well, then what about a artificial Christmas tree made from natural materials…? Which would turn the world upside down: nature already produces “biobased trees” , accidentally also in the right shape….Which is unique, most things we desire don’t grow in nature as we like them. At least, until now. Take a wooden chair, its still hand made, processed with natural materials. But maybe that also could be grown directly by nature, at least when its up to the artist Gavin Munro. He argued that if we give nature a hand, it could as well grow directly in the desired shape, in the form of a chair: and after growing a prototype, he now planted a small chair production forest. See http://fullgrown.co.uk/about/

On the other side, a natural tree could be a solution. However if the tree is used for a shorter period as is required to grow, its use is unsustainable: Our potential to grow Christmas trees will run out of land.

Biomass in general unfortunately is usually faster destroyed as it can regrow. Especially when burning it instantly for energy generation. But also regarding Christmas trees: it takes about 7 years to grow a tree to room size, so you should use that tree for at least 7 years . In that time a new one can have grown. However, you cant automatically rely on that regrowth, since you count on a farmer that should have done that. Which is unsure , and there is no FSC like organisation for Christmas trees to protect that. Its better to reserve about 4 m2 for your tree growth yourself, only then you are sure that nothing is depleted , and the land is reserved for that.

In case you throw away the tree each year, you have to reserve 7x that amount of land, since you ‘consume’ the growing capacity of 7 years in 1 year and 4 m2. While you are using one tree only for 1 year, another 6 need to grow for consecutive years. In total 28 m2.

I must say , some time ago I read about Christmas tree leasing. Thats interesting: You posses nothing, but get the service: A farmer leases the tree for 40 Euro a year, picks up and delivers the tree, and in between the tree continues growing after replanting . All is secured.

There is however still another hidden issue: This can work for 1 tree but if everyone in the world reserves land for Christmas trees we have another situation. Suppose the case of the Netherlands: We will have to reserve say 6 million parcels of land for trees, and if we throw away our trees each year, 7 times more land . Add this up and we will need 169 km2 … Land that also could have been used to grow food, or renewable materials for instance. Or harvest solar energy. The 169 km2 is enough to generate 17% of Dutch electricity via PV panels. Combined with the 11% renewable electricity we already produce, a major jump is made to 28% of electricity. Which is also enough to go beyond the 14% government target for our total energy coming from renewables in 2020, and nearing 20 % . Only by replacing Christmas trees by Solar panels….

And well, we even did not discuss the balls in the tree , lights and other stuff…. So, no more Christmas trees, then?

Well, besides a physical analyses, you could argue there is a meta-physical side of the story, the more spiritual oriented approach. ( Which happens to be the origin of the tradition as well…) Therefore, if you use the tree, sitting beneath it, reflecting and come to senses, and make all kinds of sustainable plans, well yes, then every tree is worth its investment – in energy and materials that is .


PS Picture is from Bolderberg in Belgium: the municipality wanted to reduce energy consumption, and refused to connect the tree to the grid. Some people installed Solar panels…it required 5, but now its a “stand alone” tree… there is some irony in that, being not connected  with Christmas …

Author: ronald rovers