Material value – Christmas tree

23 December 2020

As Curator of MoDiP, I find myself talking a lot about the understanding of the material value of plastics. That is to say, showing that the material family is not made up of ‘cheap’ materials that do not matter, or that are made into inconsequential objects that can be thrown away without thought. We hear so much about the disposability of single-use plastics and how they are bad for the environment but we do not hear so much about how objects are reused. The reuse of plastics objects that are designed to have a long life is vital to make sure that their material value is realised.

At this time of year many families will be debating the environmental difference between a real Christmas tree and an artificial one. According to an Independent article from last year:

  • A natural two-metre Christmas tree that does not have roots and is disposed of into a landfill after Christmas produces a carbon footprint of around 16kg of CO2.
  • A two-metre tree that has roots and is properly disposed of after its use — by burning it on a bonfire, planting it or having it chipped — has a carbon footprint of around 3.5kg of CO2, four and a half times less.
  • On the other hand, a two-metre Christmas tree made from plastic has a carbon footprint measuring at around 40kg of CO2, more than 10 times greater than a properly disposed of real tree.

Therefore, if you have an artificial tree, you would need to use it for at least 10 years in order for its environmental impact to equal that of a responsibly-disposed natural tree.​ That is, if it has been built to last that long. (Barr 2019)

There are many artificial trees that will not last very long because their construction or the materials that are used to create them are not robust enough to withstand being put up and taken down multiple times. My Mum’s tree, on the other hand, has been going strong for at least 35 years, if not more, this is the only tree that I remember. By continue to use it, my Mum has certainly got her money’s worth, and more than the materials’ environmental spend was worth out of this plastics object.

The four feet slot into a central core which has a hole in the middle for the trunk. The trunk itself is in two pieces and has a metal sheet curled round to give strength. It is finally topped off with a cone shape of mini branches.

I love the moulded detail at points where it will be seen e.g. the base of the finial, at the branching points, and the base of the trunk. Where the trunk is less visible the detail of bark is less sophisticated.

The branches each have a letter denoting into which branching layer they should be placed.

The tops of the branches have more ‘needles’ than the underside and each of the ‘needles’ are like a mini tree in themselves with a two-tone green effect giving depth to the branches. Going up the tree the branches get smaller to create a lovely, smooth, conical shape.

The finished article is a handsome tree with enough space between each layer of branches for baubles, lights and tinsel.

Like many families, the decorations on the tree have personal meaning. My Mum’s tree will always have this little polystyrene spaceship and lorry. They may not seem very Christmassy on first glance but I believe they represent the toys you might find under the tree. They have always been there and would be sadly missed if they were not there.

From a material value point of view, this 1980s tree has proved its worth by being taken apart and put away safely each year, only to come out the next year to be put back together. It has had dogs’ tails wagged against it, cats have been up it, and house rabbits have nibbled it and yet it still looks as if it has many years of life left in it. It would be great to hear your stories of your family’s artificial tree. Do you have an older tree? Or even the same tree? What about other decorations that come out each year?

All images very kindly taken by my sister, Sarah Dennis, as I haven’t been able to visit the old tree… I mean my Mum recently.

Louise Dennis, Curator of MoDiP


Barr, S., 2019. Are artificial or real Christmas trees better for the environment? [online]. The Independent. Available from:… [Accessed 30 Nov 2020].