By SUSAN FORNOFF
San Francisco Chronicle
November 30, 2007
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.
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 (www.christmastree.org) 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,"
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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