How Green Is a Fake Christmas Tree?

'Tis the season to haul out those decorations, hang those stockings and gather around that fragrant evergreen.

More and more often, however, that green tree being celebrated is fabricated. The debate rages on: Is a real Christmas tree or a fake one better for the environment?

"I'm not the greenest person in the world, but the thought of cutting down trees each year doesn't seem right," says Margaret Petrucelli, a mother of three young children who purchased an artificial tree last year.

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Petrucelli isn't alone. With authentic-looking, pre-lit trees being offered at reasonable prices, many are opting for the convenience of an artificial tree.

There are no needles to vacuum up, no roots that need frequent watering. There's less of a fire hazard to contend with.

It's also nice to know that you can haul that aluminum or plastic baby out of the box in the back of the basement and quickly set it up rather than schlepping down to the local tree stand in the freezing cold, tying the fallen timber atop your SUV and struggling to get it through your front door.

Those factors help explain the ever-stronger performance at Tree Classics Inc., an artificial-tree company based in Lake Barrington, Ill.

President Leon Gamze says the firm's enjoyed a steady 20- to 25-percent increase in sales each year for the past 7 years — and 2007 has been the biggest year the company's seen since its inception in 1971.

Then again, while the parade of discarded trees along suburban curbsides in bitter January makes the heart sink a bit, many still support keeping it real.

Why? Well, although some fakes are crafted from recyclable material, about 85 percent of artificial trees are made in China from the petroleum-based plastics polyethylene or polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC or vinyl.

The natural-tree industry says PVC could contain lead and is potentially harmful to workers manufacturing it. And any plastic tree will someday end up in a landfill, where it could take millions of years to disintegrate.

From a consumer perspective, PVC trees are only dangerous if they catch fire, producing the toxic, highly acidic gas hydrogen chloride. Polyethylene trees could also catch fire, but the toxic-chemical risk would be less.

Environmental experts tout real trees, noting that it takes four to nine years to grow a real, six-foot tree. By choosing one, people are supporting tree farmers and the industry, they add.

"One of the biggest misconceptions of the general public still today is that harvesting of Christmas trees is cutting down forests," says Peter Danley, a landscaping expert. "This is not the case."

In its afterlife, a natural tree can be reused as mulch. The huge Rockefeller Center Christmas tree put up in New York City produces three tons of mulch annually, according to Rick Dungey, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association.

As for the environment, Christmas trees are grown on land that probably couldn't be used for other crops. A live tree gives off oxygen while taking in carbon dioxide, and each tree that's cut down is replaced by a new one.

"There's about 450,000 total acres planted in Christmas trees in the United States, which means Christmas tree farms are sequestering at least 3.3 billion metric tons of CO2," says Dungey. "How much carbon is sequestered by fake trees?"

"Fake trees can be used for a number of years. That's great," he adds. "We've got to think longer-term, though. The average household uses a fake tree for 6-9 years. Sooner or later, all fake Christmas trees will be thrown away."

Russell Burke, an associate professor of biology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., sees benefits in both approaches.

Artificial trees are probably worse for the environment initially, but their effect spread over years makes them a slightly better solution over the long term, he says.

Of course, both sides agree that if you have the space, time and inclination, purchasing a real living tree, complete with root ball, and planting it in the ground after its decorative job is done is a great option for the Earth — provided you go real easy on pesticides.

Now if we could only figure out a way to cut back on all that senseless, wasteful, delightful wrapping paper.