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Dilemma for a green Christmas: Real or plastic?

Manufacturers of real and artificial firs both tout theirs as environment-friendly. One study favors live-cut trees, saying artificial ones would have to be reused 11 years to be the better choice.

December 18, 2009|By Jerry Hirsch and Martin Zimmerman
  • Nasir Mia, right, helps a customer at Tina Callas' tree lot in Sherman Oaks. Some environmentalists say live-cut trees have smaller carbon footprints than artificial trees.
Nasir Mia, right, helps a customer at Tina Callas' tree lot in Sherman… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Artificial or fresh-cut live trees? That may be a dilemma this year for environment-minded shoppers hoping for a green Christmas.

Tree sellers have made dueling pitches this season, each extolling the environmental benefits of their trees, and the choice may be a puzzler. Some shoppers are ignoring both, going instead for living trees in pots.

Many factors go into a Christmas tree purchase, including family tradition, price and ease of care. But increasingly, environmental concerns are also part of the equation.

The environmental pitches this year come at time when Christmas tree sales of all types are being battered by a tough national economy. ISI Group, a New York research firm, notes that sales are up slightly over last year, but the gains have shrunk each week since Thanksgiving.

The American Christmas Tree Assn. -- the trade group for the artificial manufacturers -- says a study it sponsored shows that its trees have a smaller carbon footprint than live trees cut for the holidays.

That is based on the assumption that these artificial Christmas trees are kept in use for at least 10 years. However, the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Assn. -- representing the live-cut tree guys -- notes that "real" Christmas trees reduce carbon emissions by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen as they grow, and that they are renewable. Growers plant one or more trees to replace every tree they harvest.

Bill and Anna Hory of Manhattan Beach decided the best way to be green was to do neither. Instead they rented a 3-foot living tree in a pot from the Living Christmas Co. of Redondo Beach.

"For $70, they drop it off and pick it up, and we can get the same tree every year, so it can grow with our kids," said Bill Hory. The couple has three children under the age of 5.

"It's hard for us to rationalize buying a real tree and throwing it away every year. We are not green freaks, but we are trying to be more concerned about our decisions regarding the environment," he said.

Mike Bondi, a professor of forestry at Oregon State University, said that there haven't been any life cycle studies in the U.S. comparing the carbon footprints, or greenhouse gas emissions, of real and artificial Christmas trees.

Bondi said that there is one study that looked at the amount of carbon fixed within a live tree through its life cycle, but the findings were still preliminary at this point and it did not measure or compare carbon emissions from real and artificial trees.

The average tree absorbs about 20 pounds of carbon, but that doesn't address the issue of how much carbon is used to farm the tree, ship it to a retailer and dispose it after the holiday, Bondi said.

Bondi, who has 7-foot noble fir tree in his home this Christmas, discounted the findings of the artificial tree study.

"The study by the American Christmas Tree Assn. is not a peer-reviewed scientific study. We tried to get our hands on the data, and they wouldn't share the information," he said.

The study was conducted by PE Americas, an environmental consulting firm, and was also "preliminary," said Jami Warner, executive director of the Los Angeles-based trade group. She said the association plans to release the details of a more comprehensive study by next Christmas.

The Carbon Trust, an independent nonprofit company set up by the British government to accelerate that nation's move to a low-carbon economy, recommends that people buy real trees. Typically, they have much lower carbon footprints than artificial Christmas trees, the trust said.

But, the British group pointed out in a statement, artificial trees would be the more environment-friendly choice if they are reused for at least 11 years. That's because the carbon emissions from making and selling one artificial tree about equals that from growing and cutting 11 real trees, according to the group's estimates.

Real trees have the smallest carbon footprint when they are chipped and used in a garden after the holiday is over rather than being shipped off to a landfill, the trust said.

According to the National Christmas Tree Assn, which represents growers, 28.2 million real trees were sold last year compared with 11.7 million artificial trees.

Real trees tend to be less expensive. On Home Depot's website, a 7-foot fresh-cut Fraser fir costs $129, a 5-footer is $100. But real trees can make allergies flare and sometimes create a mess when the needles shed.

Artificial trees come at all prices -- Home Depot has one for $129 -- but a high-quality tree that is realistic and likely to last for years costs $300 or more, according to manufacturers.

About 90% of the trees on the lots in California come from Christmas tree plantations in Oregon and Washington. Oregon ships 8 million trees, about $150 million worth, to others states annually.

Reports from tree sellers around the Los Angeles area are that business this year is decent, especially given California's economic woes.

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