Ho, ho, hold on … are plastic Christmas trees better for the environment after all?

Expert says benefits of real trees are negated by carbon footprint required to import them every year into the UAE

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No image of Christmas is complete without the thought of a decorated tree with wrapped presents underneath.

However, for many people, choosing between a real Christmas tree or a fake one can bring on some anxiety.

There is a continuing debate as to whether cutting down real trees every year is better for the environment than households using the same plastic tree year after year.

Here, The National speaks to an environmental expert to finally put the discussion to rest.

Carbon footprint from importing trees

While the answer in many countries is that a real tree is the better option, the answer is not so straightforward in the UAE, experts have said.

“When you’re assessing a Christmas tree on its sustainability it’s important to be able to assess the source of the tree,” said Ivano Iannelli, senior adviser for sustainability at Emirates Global Aluminium.

“If you have a real tree that’s sourced from sustainable forestry, that’s great. But if you have an artificial tree from recycled materials, it’s even better in this part of the world.

“The reason for that is because the carbon footprint will be much more significant to import a fresh tree into the country.”

In other parts of the world, the question of which type of tree is more sustainable is more easily answered.

A Greenpeace report from 2020 said that fake plastic trees are often made from PVC, a material that is more difficult to recycle and often ends up in landfills.

From there they continue to release greenhouse gases and pollute ecosystems by releasing chemicals.

They are also usually made in factories overseas and imported into countries, which increases their carbon footprint.

Real trees are regarded as more sustainable due to the fact they absorb more carbon dioxide and are compostable at the end of their use.

However, the same report gave a warning that real trees could come with a downside, especially if they are not sourced from the right place.

Many Christmas tree farms use pesticides, including some that are banned for gardening use in several countries.

The towering Christmas tree at Al Wasl Plaza in Expo City Dubai attracts tourists again this year. Pawan Singh / The National

Real trees that end up in landfills often end up producing methane gas, which is said to be 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Another point against real trees is they can usually be only used once in this region, meaning fake trees have far more longevity.

“Because the fresh trees have to be [annually] imported and shipped over here their carbon footprint is likely to be higher than the less trendy plastic option,” Mr Iannelli said.

“When you import a tree that is not native to the region then it is not going to survive.

“You can replant trees locally in other countries but not in the UAE because the climate is not right for that here.”

'We cannot destroy our planet in the name of joy’

One Dubai resident who made the switch from using a real tree to opting for a plastic alternative is Jane Lourdes, from India.

“For the past few years, we’ve been using a plastic Christmas tree. But before that, we used to get real trees for around 10 years,” said Ms Lourdes, who works in the property and construction sectors.

“We bought real trees because we loved the freshness they brought to our apartment.

“But then we watched documentaries about carbon footprints, environment depletion and global warming, and felt a little queasy with how we’ve been actively contributing to destroying our planet in the name of ‘joy’.

“That’s when we consciously decided to switch to plastic trees and have stuck to it ever since.”

High demand for the real thing

One company that is selling real Christmas trees in Dubai is Kibsons, who said there was an increase in demand this year.

“There is a bigger demand for real trees than we have seen before,” said Halima Jumani, founder and chief executive of Kibsons e-commerce, who added that sustainability is an important factor for the company and its clients.

“As was the case in previous years as well, we can arrange to collect the trees from households to use with other food waste in our composting machine, which will then be sold as organic compost on our website.

“Customers can also request to have their Christmas tree cut into pieces of wood that can be used as firewood.”

Another Dubai resident has used the same fake tree for more than a decade.

“I bought it when I was living in Jordan 12 years ago,” said Jordanian Dima Maroun, who works in the sustainability sector.

“I wasn’t sure that the real fir trees were sustainably grown as they are not native to the region.

“It is still in great condition, and I believe disposing of it at this time could have a more negative environmental impact than buying a real tree.”

Also getting the most out of her artificial tree is independent financial adviser, and National columnist, Keren Bobker.

“We have been using the same fake Christmas tree for 16 years. It may be a little past its best and still sheds a bit, but it is only up for a couple of weeks and the lights and decorations cover any sins,” said Ms Bobker.

“One of the reasons we have kept it is that it seems a waste of resources to either buy a new one or to purchase a real tree that has travelled thousands of kilometres.

“It is hard to live a sustainable life in the UAE but reusing items like trees and decorations for many years is a small thing we can do. It assuages our guilt a little and costs nothing, so it’s a win all around.”

Convenience is the driving factor behind Dubai resident Tania Kteily opting for a fake tree.

“I personally opt for an artificial tree, for convenience, as I can keep it year on year and it doesn't require maintenance or watering,” said Ms Kteily, who works in marketing.

“Also, it is less of a hassle to keep the tree up while back home in Lebanon for the holidays for a week or more.”

Updated: December 23, 2022, 2:00 AM