Santa’s role in a Circular Economy Part 1: The Christmas tree and ornaments

Christmas is a time when people come together to celebrate, decorate their homes, give gifts and gather for feasts… While it´s a time to enjoy, it’s also a time of excess, with increased spending, increased production and use of resources. More waste is generated during this time of the year than any other.

In the run up to Christmas we will be exploring Santa’s role in a Circular Economy. We will be looking at how different elements that make the holiday season special, impact the environment and how we can be on Santa’s nice list by celebrating the festivities while paying respect to the environment.

The Christmas Tree

Christmas is a month away and now is the time when we start thinking about putting up the Christmas tree! But which is most environmentally friendly: artificial or real?

Artificial trees

Some might argue that an artificial tree is better, it lasts a long time, and you can reuse it every year. But does this really help protect forests or does it contribute to the plastic waste problem?

Plastic Christmas trees are made of PVC or polyethylene and their production is very energy intensive. At the end of their lifecycle, plastic Christmas trees tend to be thrown in the landfill where they take centuries to break down. Adding up to their environmental impact, many of these are produced in Asia and during their transport to Europe, a lot of CO2 is produced.

A two-metre-tall artificial tree has a carbon footprint of around 40kg. This is more than ten times of a real tree that’s burned after Christmas. So, for an artificial tree to negate its carbon footprint, it would need to be re-used 10 times. However, it is estimated that artificial trees are actually used just four times.

Real trees

On the other hand, the effects of a real tree especially if locally sourced, are very different.

It takes around 10-12 years for a Christmas tree to grow to the popular size of two metres tall. In this time, they capture carbon from the atmosphere and provide a habitat for wildlife. Buying a real tree, supports forests as out of the trees harvested for sale, there are more than ten times left standing, plus for every tree sold, farmers plant 1-3 seedlings in its place. Buying real trees helps keep tree farms in business and their land which is covered in trees, helps maintain healthy forests and habitats for wildlife.

After the holidays, these trees can be composted or burned. In some cases, trees can even be borrowed in a pot for the Christmas season and returned to be replanted in a forest.

Are there other alternatives?

Would perhaps no Christmas tree be better? Although this could be the most sustainable way, breaking tradition for many people just doesn’t feel right. Still, this is where one can get creative and look at alternatives.

Such as perhaps decorating a tree that’s already outdoors, or an indoor plant you already have at home, or even a little rosemary tree in a pot. Rosemary is easy to prune so it looks like a Christmas tree and you can use it to season meals.

For those that are keen on DIY, an idea could be to head to your local park or forest and collect branches to make a tree shape and decorate it.

And what about the ornaments?

Part of the fun this time of the year is decorating the Christmas tree. With all the types of ornaments available to choose from, which ones are best for the environment?

Tinsel, baubles and other ornaments made from cheap plastics and glass or are covered in glitter cannot be recycled. If you already have them though, you can do your best to take good care of them and reuse them for a long time. If you want to replace them, try giving them to someone or donating them to charity and if they have worn out, instead of buying new ones, why not get creative and try to revamp and personalise them?

More eco-friendly options for ornaments are ones made from natural materials, the most common ones being pinecones, wood or metal. You can also get very nice ornaments made from recycled materials such as metal, plastic and paper.

Ceramic ornaments can also be a good option as they are durable. Although it’s not common to see recycling bins for ceramics, they can be ground up and incorporated in tiles or new dishes. Sometimes facilities that recycle bricks and concrete will also recycle ceramics.

Make some yourself!

You can also have a fun day making your own decorations, giving your Christmas an even more personal touch. You can make paper stars, put some branches/twigs /pinecones together or even make some with corn starch or salt dough.

What material you use and what you make is down to your imagination. And if you need some inspiration, the internet is full of ideas from people sharing their crafts and DIY videos.

In the gallery below, are a few samples of handmade decorations (click on each image to enlarge). Hopefully these will spark your imagination to make your own and have some fun!

You can now check out Part 2: Gifts and gift wrapping and Part 3: Food and cutlery of our series for a more circular Christmas!

The Circular Based Waste Management project is funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA and Norway Grants Fund for Regional Cooperation –

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