Christmas is a time of togetherness, but it’s also a time of excess. We eat and drink too much, we give and receive too much. And at the end of the season a lot of rubbish gets sent to landfill, including hundreds of thousands of real and plastic Christmas trees.

Facing that kind of waste each year, we wondered what kind of tree is best for the environment: a plastic tree, a real tree, or something else entirely?

Although many factors come into play when choosing the most sustainable tree, it’s not surprising that a brand-new plastic one is the worst choice.

According to sustainability consultancy Edge Environment, artificial trees are typically made of a non-renewable petroleum-derived material called polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and in Australia a fake tree is generally unlikely to be recycled, so it ends up in landfill. That means if you must get a plastic tree, its lifespan is important.

“You can get a plastic tree that’s realistic and durable,” says Richard Griffiths, head of industry engagement at Edge. “Or you can buy a cheap plastic tree that will break in year one. That’s probably the worst outcome: buying a tree you use once and then throw away.”

If a single-use plastic tree is bad, does it follow that a real tree is good? Not quite, although there are benefits to one that was living. A real cut tree is renewable because it will likely be replaced with a new tree after harvest, and trees capture carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. But whether a real tree is ethical or sustainable or not depends on where it came from, and how it’s disposed of.

“Try to make sure you’re buying from a local source so transportation is reduced. Perhaps you could ask the seller what else they do to grow in an environmentally friendly way. They may not know of course, but asking them at least helps them realise that those things are important to customers, and may impact what they do in the future,” says Griffiths.

But even if you do buy from a sustainable, local grower, one vital thing to consider is where the tree will end up after Christmas. If a real tree is thrown into landfill, the environmental impact is significant.

“It’s really important to compost or mulch a real tree at the end of its life. Most councils and many companies will collect trees at the end of the season,” says Jaine Morris, chief operating officer at Coreo, a circular economy consultancy. “You don’t want it to go to landfill. It’s not going to sit there for a long time like plastic, but it will release methane. A tree in a commercial compost pit breaks down into carbon, which feeds the soil and creates fertiliser.”

Griffiths has another option for you to consider: getting a second-hand plastic tree. “One for one, cut trees are definitely better than buying a new plastic tree. But a lifetime of buying natural trees still has a big cumulative impact. It’s not a choice everyone will make, but my second-hand tree has zero impact.”

Of course new plastic and real trees aren’t the only choices. “The best case scenario is to buy a live tree in a pot, and decorate it,” says Morris, adding that you get year-long joy from it.

Or you can look for festive potential in what you already own. “This year we have a lot of house plants and a big monstera, so I might dress him up,” she says.

DIY and interiors expert Geneva Vanderzeil has been making her own trees for years. “I focus on upcycling and creating simple projects with things you might otherwise throw away.”

One of those projects is always the Christmas tree. “I make a branch tree. It’s easy to do, and you can still have Christmas spirit even if you don’t have a lot of space,” she says. “I love that we’re not throwing away a big tree every year.”

How to make one of Vanderzeil’s branch trees
Start by collecting fallen branches from under a large tree. The dried, pale branches of a gum tree are ideal and in plentiful supply, even in urban areas.

Decide on the size of your tree and break the branches into descending lengths so they form a pyramid shape. Make a loop in a length of rope, leaving two equal long tails on either side of the loop. Hang the rope on a hook in the wall, and wrap the rope tails around the ends of each branch so it hangs horizontally, starting with the shortest branch.

Looping the rope around twice should be enough to secure each branch end. Leave enough room between the branches to comfortably hang ornaments. Wrap fairy lights around the branches and rope to bring the tree to life. Finally, hang ornaments; upcycled, vintage and family heirlooms are good, sustainable choices.