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Real holiday tree or fake? Consider the source

 Posted by on December 2, 2009
Dec 022009

By Bill Sullivan
Green Right Now

Weighing the merits of buying a real tree against trotting out a store-bought fake one this Christmas season?

Consider the source.

Christmas tree farms grow evergreens with a purpose

Christmas tree farms grow evergreens with a purpose

Opting for a real tree could be the start of a Norman Rockwell kind of family tradition. A trip to a nearby Christmas tree farm – there are now more than 15,000 spread across all 50 states — might include a pleasant Sunday drive, a walk in the country, and a chance for spirited debate when it comes time to determine which tree is “The One.” Toss in a hay ride, a cup of apple cider, and perhaps even a picture with Santa, and you have the makings of a perfect start to the holiday season.

If, on the other hand, it’s a fake tree you covet, the original source might be the Addis Brush Company, which began mass-producing artificial trees in the 1930s…with the same machinery used to make toilet brushes. These days, your provider most likely is a factory in a pollution-choked town in China. (An estimated 85 percent of all artificial trees are manufactured there.) Have a nice trip, and don’t forget your smog mask!

While you are checking out your fake tree’s roots, so to speak, smog won’t be your only health issue. Those artificials are mostly made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, which releases dioxins when produced or burned. Lead, often used as a PVC stabilizer, poses yet another hazard, particularly to children. And, when you decide it’s time for a newer model, the discarded tree is almost certain to end up in a landfill, with all the issues that implies.

Finding "The One" (Photo: Bill Sullivan)

Finding "The One" (Photo: Bill Sullivan)

For more than a decade, wife, son and I have been making the trek out to a tree farm in East Texas, cutting down our own, tossing it in the back of her father’s F-150 and wrestling it in the front door of our small town home. It’s a little more of a hassle in some respects, but for us, it wouldn’t quite be Christmas any other way.

We used to feel a little guilty about this. After all, that Virginia pine was minding its own business and posing no threat when we strolled up, saw in hand. Was our preference for that pleasant scent around the house just another case of environmental ignorance coupled with good old American self indulgence?

Maybe not so much, as it turns out. The real versus artificial debate rages on, but the fresh approach seems to be gaining favor with environmentalists and others simply hoping to reduce their carbon footprint.

Before we get to that, a few (brief) words on behalf of the fake tree lobby:

  • Fans of the faux argue that fake trees can be used year after year without reducing the number of oxygen-producing trees in the environment.
  • An artificial tree is almost certainly more cost-effective if kept long enough.
  • Fake is about the only way to go for anyone with serious allergy problems.
  • On a trip to just about any home and garden department, you can find plenty of perfectly nice-looking fake trees, many of which have the couch potato-pleasing advantage of being pre-lit.

Several of these points have some merit. As you might imagine, however, the National Christmas Tree Association sees things a bit differently and states its case in no uncertain terms. Consider this shot across the bow from the top page of the organization’s Web site:

We know there are some crazy things that people have been told about Christmas Trees over the years. And this has led to a large number of confused consumers. While many of these myths can be traced back to the fake tree industry, many are like urban legends … they just sort of exist and nobody really knows how they started.

Sore subject, guys? Just guessing…

In buying a live Christmas tree, the NCTA argues, you aren’t depleting a forest; you are harvesting a crop grown for this specific purpose — a crop that contributes positively to the environment during its life by adding oxygen and reducing carbon dioxide. (According to the group, about 450 million trees are currently growing on tree farms in the United States.)

The NCTA also estimates that Christmas tree growers plant one to three seedlings for every tree cut, so the number of trees is actually growing. And, instead of sending all that Christmas tree money overseas, the tree farm industry adds about 100,000 jobs to the U.S. economy.

What to do? Obviously, you don’t need to provide most of the heavy lifting to get a real tree for your house. Plenty of stores truck in pre-cut trees to help you eliminate all that hacking and sawing and crawling around in the dirt (or mud).

The prize secured (Photo: Bill Sullivan)

Becky and Austin Sullivan with holiday tree 2009 (Photo: Bill Sullivan)

Freshness, however, can be an issue. This route also is a bit less environmentally friendly overall, since those trees were trucked in to that store, often from hundreds of miles away, whereas most people cutting their own do so much closer to home.

Another option: “Balled and burlapped” trees. Farmers grow the tree and wrap the roots in a burlap sack. The trees can be used for two weeks, then replanted. Messy and labor-intensive, but undeniably a very green choice.

If, in the end, you decide to go the hayride and hacksaw route to that perfect Tannenbaum, here are a few other things to consider, some drawn from bitter experience:

  • A real tree is…real: While tree farmers often trim and shape trees to make them more attractive, hidden imperfections can be a major drawback. Be sure to check out the trunk and make sure it isn’t shaped like a Grand Prix race course. A tree with a crooked trunk can be almost impossible to balance on a conventional stand. (End up with half a dozen strings connecting said trunk to various walls or pieces of furniture and you won’t make this mistake twice!)
  • Fire ants can dampen that holiday spirit: Getting down and dirty in the tree-cutting process is one thing; coming away with a couple dozen fire ant bites is another matter entirely — particularly if you are especially allergic to those nasty little creatures. Check out the area near the base of the tree before you get to sawing. If you find a mound, find another tree.
  • The longer the search, the bigger the tree: Wife and son tend to be perfectionists. It is an unwritten rule of the Christmas tree hunt that the tree expands proportionately with the time spent looking for it. This can result in the tree ultimately occupying one-fourth or more of your living room. Yes, it looked magnificent out there in the middle of that field, but inside, it’s just TOO DARN BIG.
  • Don’t forget the water: That real tree you just cut down may now be dying, but it isn’t dead yet. By putting the base in water, the tree will continue drinking and stay relatively fresh for weeks.

When the season is done, your real Christmas tree can continue to be environmentally friendly. Look into “treecycling” operations in your area, where your holiday companion can be turned into compost or mulch.

It may be a small thing, but every little bit counts. Either way, it surely beats sending an over-sized toilet brush off to the landfill.

Heading home for the holiday

Heading home for the holiday (Photo: Bill Sullivan)

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