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Christmas tree debate: real or fake?

Lauren and her potted tree. It will stay outdoors until Christmas Eve, when it will be brought in for 14 hours.
Photo by Jennifer Guerra
Lauren and her potted tree. It will stay outdoors until Christmas Eve, when it will be brought in for 14 hours.

There’s a long-running debate about which kind of Christmas tree is greener: real or artificial.  We wanted to try to settle that debate... or at least add to the discussion:

Lauren Northrop and her husband Tom are big fans of Christmas.

“We love celebrating it, I love decorating, but we always have this dilemma: what do we do about a tree?”

They didn’t want a plastic tree because it’s, well, plastic. And they didn’t like the idea of bringing a live tree into their house, only to have it die and then drag it out to the curb to be recycled.

So they skipped the Christmas tree thing altogether for the last four years. But then, their son was born.

They bought a live, baby Christmas tree with its roots still intact. That way, when Christmas is done and the ground thaws, they can plant it in their backyard.

“I was planning to keep the tree inside until December 25th so that we could decorate it and put lights on it. When we went to buy it they said if you do that, it probably won’t survive.”

That’s probably way too much hassle for most people.

So a lot of people go for real, cut trees. Pat Fera would love to have a real cut Christmas tree in her house.

“But I’m very afraid of them. I had a friend of mine, this was back in the ‘60s, and she and her mother had gone to midnight mass and her father was home and he was sleeping on the couch and what woke him up was the sound of the tree just going wooosh.”

Apparently the TV shorted, it ignited the tree, tree caught on fire and the dad just made it out of the house.

SCHILDGEN: “Well yeah, if you’re not careful that’s certainly, yeah, a real tree is a hell of a fire hazard!”

That’s Bob Schildgen. He writes an environmental advice column for the Sierra Club called Hey, Mr. Green. So I called him up and asked him…

Guerra: “Hey, Mr. Green. Which is more environmentally friendly? Why don’t we tackle one at a time: let’s go with plastic trees. What do you think about those?”

Schildgen: “Well, I don’t think they’re environmentally friendly for a number of reasons. One is that they’re made out of materials that use petrochemicals and metals and so forth. They get eventually tossed in the landfill, they have a life of about 9 years and then they’re tossed. They can’t be recycled.”

And since most plastic Christmas trees are made in places like China, they have to be shipped a very long way to end up in your family room.

So plastic is out.

Schildgen does like the idea of live bulb trees, but their survival rate once you plant them in the ground isn’t that great. So he says – aside from the fire hazard mentioned – real cut trees are a much greener option than plastic. With a real tree you’re using a renewable resource; the trees are raised on tree farms, so you’re not contributing to any deforestation. And they’re completely recyclable.

“I think another feature that I like about them is that, and this is not exactly an obvious environmental issue, but I think it’s very good for children to see something fresh, green, real, alive, and then watch it cycle as the needles fall off and it goes into its natural demise. I think that’s good for people.”

Schildgen says some farmers use pesticides on their tree, so if you’re concerned about that, you should look for local organic trees.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.
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