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Real vs. fake: Which tree is greener? The debate branches out
San Francisco Chronicle


November 30, 2007
Friday AM

The question resembles the grocery store's "paper or plastic," except that we won't decorate our homes with those bags. We certainly won't admire them, plan parties around them and cozy up to them for a whiff of their fragrance.

The bags don't stir up memories of our idyllic (or deprived) childhoods, make us nostalgic for shopping sprees past or play any role in our shopping spirit. We're talking today about Christmas trees, tenderly cherished holiday traditions in homes all across the globe for hundreds of years, and wondering if we're doing more damage to Earth by yanking a tree out of it every winter or by erecting the same, questionably manufactured and non-recyclable plastic-and-metal imitation for the next 10 winters.

Shades of green
San Francisco Chronicle

Whether real tree or fake is your thing, here are a few ideas on minimizing environmental impact.

The replica fake: Spend a lot on a tree that looks real (check out Balsam Hill, a Redwood City, Calif., company, for its TrueNeedle technology) and make it a family heirloom that will grace the living room for 25 years. Maybe by then we'll have ways of disposing of faux trees in Earth-friendly ways.

The trendy fake: Go ahead and buy Treetopia's purple tree this year, then sell it on eBay and replace it with red in three years. Or, look around in resale stores for kitschy fakes.

Got to be real: Go to a tree farm and cut down your own, making a family ritual out of it. Keep it outside in water until it's time to decorate, and two weeks later dispose of it as recommended by your local recycler/composter.

All the way live: Purchase a containerized tree from a nursery and keep it in your yard or on your deck year-round, so you can bring it into the living room every December. (Another popular alternative: Decorate a living tree and then plant it or donate it to a tree conservancy.)

Make it yourself: Check out David Bromstad's custom-tree ideas on the Dec. 10 episode of "Color Splash" on HGTV.

The greenest tree in the humble opinion of this reporter, who researched and wrote this story as objectively as possible despite a bias toward real Christmas trees: Go to a tree farm and cut down your own, making a family ritual out of it, filling the living room with nature's perfume and keeping the local tree farms in business. A tree is said to generate oxygen for a year's life of 18 humans. Decorate without lights and, especially, flocking. Water and admire frequently, then dispose of it as recommended by local composters.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

If at first glance the choice seems like a no-brainer, think again. Then ask your local tree retailer where those real trees were shipped from, or how much petroleum went into the plastic for those fake trees. Go ahead and try to figure out how much gas you use shopping for your real tree every year for 10 years, how much fuel was used to transport that tree (and the air around it), how much energy the local waste company uses for its disposal, and compare that with the petroleum used to make the plastic tree, the fuel used to ship it (in its flat box) from somewhere in Asia, the gas you use shopping for it.

All of that calculating might yield a carbon footprint -- ah, but what about the health effects of chemicals used to make the fake tree or grow the real tree? What about water depletion for the real tree? What about the impact of either on the U.S. economy, your wallet or your allergies?

"Complicated indeed ... just like every other daily choice we make," said Ferris Kuwar, vice president of sustainability for the Green Media Group. "If everyone still walked out onto their property and cut down a small tree once a year to decorate with strung popcorn, then chopped it up for firewood and mulch, then I think we would all be OK using a real tree. Times have changed, though."

They've changed so much that even burning firewood is considered detrimental to the ozone, and the only official positions in this seasonal real-vs.-fake debate belong to their respective industries.

The National Christmas Tree Association's Web site ( opens with a chart itemizing why real trees are more environmentally beneficial than artificial trees: lead-free, PVC-free, carbon-neutral, biodegradable, replenishable and natural. Its big points: Non-renewable petroleum and metals go into the makings of the main material in artificial trees, PVC plastic, the manufacture of which releases toxic dioxins into air and water.

Carrie Chen, vice president for marketing at Treetopia, the South San Francisco company making trendy faux trees, can deconstruct the arguments one by one. She says that there's hardly more lead than hospitals have in their plastic IV bags, that Japanese makers of PVC are strictly controlled, that more petroleum is consumed by transporting 10 years' worth of real trees than making and transporting one faux tree. She concludes, "I think overall the artificial way is more green."

There's the possibility that the greenest alternative is the one that nurtures humans' connection to and appreciation for nature, and heightens their desire to do what's best for the environment. That would be the real tree and its distinctive fresh scent.

Unless, of course, one is allergic to that scent. Then the artificial tree is a better choice. Unless, of course, one is also asthmatic or chemically sensitive, in which case the faux tree's plastic and the accumulation of dust over the years could ignite symptoms.

"Ignite," you say? Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council, makes it her job to fret about household dangers, and this time of year she takes the pulpit to advise revelers to keep their live trees fresh and watered -- perhaps a good reason not to buy from the local big-box store with trees lined up in bundles on the curb.

The consumer unconcerned about scents, pollution or resources might base the decision on support for the U.S. economy. That would mean buying a real tree, since the fake trees are made mostly in China.

The consumer unconcerned about the nation's economy might be more concerned about individual economy. But there's not even a simple answer to "which is cheapest?" The mean price of a real tree last year was $40.60, according to an industry survey, and $68 for a fake tree. If the fake tree lasts 10 years, then it is the better buy. But faux trees in Balsam Hill's new, lifelike collections, for example, start at $339 and cost as much as $5,999. So, over 10 years, the difference can go one way or the other.

David Bromstad, of HGTV's "Color Splash," made his own real-faux tree for a forthcoming episode. "I deconstructed the cheapest fake tree I could find," he said, "then I took a 5-inch-diameter birch pole for the trunk, drove holes in it and put in lengths of fake tree, starting at about 5 feet up so that it wouldn't take up a lot of space at ground level. Then I decorated the crap out of it."

Bromstad grew up in Minneapolis with a real Christmas tree every year, until his father decided to go faux. He's got another idea for the Earth-friendly tree of the future.

"Let your real tree dry out this year until the needles fall out, then spray paint the dead tree, say, a glossy red, and decorate it next year," he suggested.


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