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Real Or Fake: Which Christmas Tree Is Better For The Planet?

As Santa prepares for his annual visit Aussies are deciding whether to go with a real or fake Christmas tree this year, or whether to branch out and go with something different instead.

For many Aussies, coming up with the perfect Christmas tree remains a rite of passage -- and indeed a centrepiece -- ahead of the festive season.

You may have grown up dusting off the plastic tree that's stashed in the cupboard behind the stairs 11 months of the year.

Or your family might be the type who prefers the real deal.

But as the country's concern about the use of plastics continues to grow, Aussie shoppers are changing the way they choose the perfect tree.

If you're thinking of 'going green' this Christmas, here's what you need to know:

What kind of Christmas tree are you buying this year? Image: Getty
Fake Plastic Trees: What's The Deal?

Plastic trees are commonly made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) -- one of the world's most widely produced, non-recyclable plastics.

According to an explainer from Business Insider, strips of PVC are put through a machine roller that cuts them into tiny needle-like shreds. These are then twisted and attached to a steel frame and are sometimes 'frosted' with a spray of white, latex paint.

Majority of artificial trees sold in Australia are made in China, meaning the carbon footprint to reach Aussie homes in time for Santa's arrival is considerably higher than those that are homegrown.

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Ben Pearson of non-profit World Animal Protection, warned that these pretty plastic trees pose a risk to the marine environment and wildlife.

"In the event, the tree is thrown out after one or two uses, there's the chance that plastic will end up in landfill and find its way into the environment where it could entangle or be ingested," he told 10 daily.

While it's often assumed purchasing a tree that can be used over and over is a greener option, the limited research that exists on the subject appears to show otherwise.

A 2009 study by a Canadian environmental firm found an artificial tree would have to be used for more than 20 years to be more sustainable than a natural one. 

That study, as reported by the New York Times, considered greenhouse gas emissions, use of resources and human health impacts.

Discarded plastic trees will eventually find their way to landfill, environmental protection organisations warn. Image: Getty

Pearson also wasn't convinced.

"I'm open to the fact that some people may manage to keep the same tree for years but the concern remains if you're buying plastic, you're contributing to the demand for plastic trees," he said.

"There are so many other options out there -- we'd encourage people to go down that route."

The Real Deal

Buying real Christmas trees pose a different ecological dilemma, but University of Melbourne experts say this comes at a lesser cost.

In Australia, Christmas trees are farmed specifically, and -- pending drought conditions -- are cut down and replaced by new seedlings each year.

The 'Radiata Pine' (Pinus Radiata) is the most well-known variety in Australia.

It's typically drought-tolerant and can grow in many parts of the country.

Dr Chris Weston, an ecosystem ecologist, claimed in a 2017 report that Christmas trees were farmed on already cleared land and provide numerous environmental benefits such as "carbon fixation", air filtering and offering habitats to insects and birds.

They're also 100 per cent recyclable and biodegradable.

Farmer Lynette Keneally walks through a bare paddock of Christmas trees on Sydney's outskirts. Image: Emma Brancatisano

Pearson encouraged real tree buyers to do their homework.

"It's important to be asking the supplier where the tree came from -- is it from a sustainably harvested plantation?

"Ask whether they have a system where you can drop that tree off at the end so it can be reused."

The David Suzuki Foundation, a not-for-profit environmental organisation, also supports natural trees over artificial ones.

"Buy local. Support farms that reduce or don’t use pesticides and herbicides, and tree lots that donate part of the funds to community causes," it said.

Going Really Green

Some Aussies are ditching natural and plastic trees altogether.

They're instead choosing something even greener.

Pearson said he's encouraged to see people experimenting with sustainable alternatives, such as trees made from recycled cardboard or cut from timber.

Is it time for a greener Christmas tree alternative? Image: Getty

Others are decorating DIY trees made from metal coat hangers or stacked books -- or even using tinsel to create a tree-inspired wall decoration.

Pearson urged people to steer clear of other forms of plastic this festive season, including tree decorations, party cups and cutlery.

You can check out more tree options in the video above.

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au