Donna Lenz Wright/The Week
(Published Nov. 29, 2007, 1:28 p.m.)
Be careful when asking the question: Which is better, real or artificial Christmas trees?
Folks' opinions are very strong. And whomever you ask and whatever their answer, they're sure they're right.
The real-choosers' arguments: The smell; the uniqueness of each tree each year; and the tradition of taking the family out on a chilly December day and choosing just the right one for the season.
The artificial-choosers' arguments: The ease of care; the tidiness; and the non-tree-killer stance (aka environmental soundness).
So we decided to break it down and see just which side is right by asking some of the professionals.
Some people say they choose artificial trees because they are environmentally responsible and are reusing the same tree year after year.
While that is true in one respect, overall it is statistically untrue.
One hundred percent of the 30-35 million Christmas trees sold in the United States are also grown here, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. And 100 percent of each one is 100 percent biodegradable.
Of the 10 million artificial Christmas trees sold here each year, 85 percent are made in China and shipped here via fossil-fueled transportation. Zero percent of 100 percent of them are biodegradable. Additionally, they are made from plastics and metals sometimes containing lead.
"People think that because artificial trees are something they can save year to year they're environmentally friendlier, but they're not," said Amy Sanders, department manager at Pesche's Greenhouse, Floral and Gifts in Lake Geneva.
"You can chip it up and do all kinds of stuff with it and they're gone, not sitting in a landfill. Even if you rotate your artificial tree every five years, they're still in a landfill at the end."
On the flipside, growing real Christmas trees almost always entails using pesticides and/or herbicides and sometimes even topical preservatives and/or coloring sprays.
Conclusion: Overall, real Christmas trees are more eco-friendly than artificial trees.
On the Nov. 18 broadcast of Dr. Zorba Paster On Your Health on Wisconsin Public Radio, a listener posed this very question.
Paster said that the allergies people suffer after bringing a real tree into the home are usually due to mites or molds on the trees, or pesticides, herbicides or chemical topical treatments.
He said they are rarely from the actual tree itself. A caller said she had some success after spraying the tree with water and letting it dry before bringing it into the home.
Conclusion: Allergies from real trees and their byproducts are bothersome enough for some to be the deciding factor against them.
Real Christmas trees are the source of 200 fires each year, six deaths, 25 injuries and $6 million in property damages, according to the United States Fire Administration (USFA).
Granted, the fires usually start because of shorts in the electric lights or open flames (candles, fireplaces, matches, etc.), but fires of this nature in artificial trees are extremely rare--in fact, rather unheard of.
Well-watered trees are not a fire hazard whatsoever, says the USFA. But dry trees become completely ablaze in three seconds; and it takes just 40 seconds for an entire room to be engulfed in a fire of this type.
"Watering your tree is something that has to be done every single day," Sanders reminds.
Conclusion: No properly cared-for trees are fire hazards, but under-watered real trees are extreme fire hazards.
The pleasure a Christmas tree gives us casting a mellow glow through our holiday homes is a big deal. For some, it can make or break the entire occasion.
Smell--This is one of the first things people list when answering why they choose real trees. While true, no artificial tree--no matter how real-looking--can smell like a real tree. But there are candles, air fresheners and potpourris that can have he same effect.
Appearance--Today's artificial trees can so closely resemble the real thing it's often impossible to tell which they are, short of feeling and smelling it (outside of the pink, white, silver, etc. trees, of course).
Tradition--This is another high-priority reason folks give for choosing a real tree. They say that since they were small children going, choosing and cutting their own individual tree each year is one of their most cherished family traditions.
"It's a nice family bonding time and an outing in nature," says Ann Feucht, owner and operator of Evergreen Acres in East Troy. "We try to add to that with a heated barn, cocoa and cider. We have people coming back as adults with their children who came here as children with their own parents."
Decorating--For a variety of decorating choices, artificial trees outweigh real trees for three reasons. First, artificial trees are capable of holding more and heavier ornaments. Second, artificial trees that have built-in lighting are a big benefit both for ease and less chances of fire by electrical shorts. And third, they can be up and decorated as long as folks wish as opposed to a few weeks.
"Some people choose both," Sanders said. "They have a real tree with a traditional theme, then smaller artificial trees for their tabletops and ornament collections.
"(Because) they last much longer, we choose them for our store displays."
Conclusion: Because aesthetical issues are subjective to the individual, there are no clear conclusions to this category. But giving credit for aroma and tradition to real, decorating choices to artificial and none for appearance, real gets the overall point.
Remember, real trees must be watered every day without fail. Additionally, needles fall from them from the time they enter the car, then house, until they are taken out. Some folks say they've even found needles during spring cleaning from last season's tree.
"Maintaining and cleanup of artificial trees is definitely easier than real trees," Sanders said.
Conclusion: Hands down, artificial trees are easier to care for and far less messy.
The cost for both types of trees vary greatly.
A standard pine at Evergreen Acres is $20 and $45 for a spruce or fir. Prices for real trees at Pesche's are about the same on up to $75, and about $350 for a pre-lit artificial tree. At area chain stores, artificial tree prices range from $25 to $800.
Conclusion: Because real trees are purchased each year and artificial trees are not, and price ranges for both types of trees are so wide, price is a mute argument.
Which is best?
While real trees scored points for being eco-friendly and for aesthetics; artificial trees scored for allergies, fire hazards and maintenance.
Regardless of points scored, people are going to maintain their marriages with the trees of their fancy for their own reasons. So enjoy the tree of your choice for your own reasons knowing that you're now an expert on the subject.
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