In the UK’s first ‘plastic-free’ town, Penzance, there is consternation at the arrival of 150 artificial trees, amid suggestions that this is the most environmentally friendly option

Fake plastic trees … but how environmentally friendly are they? Photograph: OKrasyuk/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Residents of Penzance, Cornwall, the UK’s first “plastic-free” town, were understandably piqued this week to find that 150 Christmas trees had been put up – every single one made of plastic.

Local business chiefs behind the move defended their decision to opt for fake trees for the community and insisted they were more sustainable than the fresh alternative – which would later have to be burned – and could be dusted off and reused for many years.

Artificial trees used to be a manky wireframe with a bit of tinsel attached, typically left forgotten in the loft along with their tangled Christmas lights. But modern-day tree technology has leaped forward and uses injection molding to create realistic sprigs. Even close up, the pricier artificial ones can fool most consumers into thinking they are real.

But looks are not everything. With major retailers such as John Lewis reporting that “faux” or artificial trees typically made from plastic are now outselling traditional fresh trees, are the ersatz ones an environmental nightmare?

According to the Carbon Trust, it is the manufacture of the plastic, from oil, that creates most – around two-thirds – of their carbon emissions. A further quarter is created by the industrial emissions produced when the tree itself is made. Their carbon footprint is boosted by the trees typically being shipped by container from China before arriving in the shops.

Friends of the Earth is advising consumers who have fake trees to keep using them for as long as possible (and today’s versions will last for years) but to look into more environmentally friendly options when it comes to a replacement.

Its tree campaigner Emi Murphy says: “Buying a potted tree with roots lets you grow it outside and use it again year after year, reducing its environmental impact and costing you less. A living tree will carry on absorbing carbon from the atmosphere for years to come. The other option to check out is the tree-rental service offered by many garden centers and plant nurseries.” Alternatively, string some fairy lights over a houseplant you already have.

Meanwhile, Penzance could take inspiration from London’s fashion district Carnaby Street, which is promising a “world-first” sustainable ocean-style Christmas installation to be unveiled next week. Every element will use recycled and reusable materials. These include repurposed fishing netting to look like green kelp, more than 500m of post-use bubble wrap standing in for coral and more than 1,500 recycled plastic bottles for fish and bubbles. The finishing touches have been added in with over 100 liters of water-based eco-friendly, vegan paint. Eat your heart out, David Attenborough.

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