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Tree Possibilities

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dec10homespunweb.jpgBy Julie Deardorff

RISMEDIA, Dec. 10, 2008-(MCT)-It may be the season of kindness and generosity, but there’s a civil war raging within the Christmas tree industry. Artificial tree companies have been known to perpetuate the myth that once-living Christmas trees contribute to deforestation. Tree farmers love to point out that the first artificial Christmas trees resembled large green toilet bowl brushes. And a third side-which splintered off from the tree farmers-says the best tree to buy is one that has been raised in an environmentally conscious manner.

We wouldn’t dream of telling you what kind of tree to buy; that decision is as personal as whether to have a tree at all. But we can give you a few pros and cons to consider before making a purchase.

Artificial Trees

Pros:

- An alternative for those with allergies or asthma. Some people are allergic to terpene, the substance found in the oil or sap of Christmas trees, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
- Durable. They last about six years.
- Affordable. They’re generally cheaper than cut trees because you can use them more than once. Trees with polyethylene (PE) needles are more expensive than polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Some come with warranties. Home Depot (homedepot.com) sells trees ranging from $39.99 to $2,499. Target (target.com) sells a 3-foot Willowstreet Fir artificial tree for $9.99.
- Easier to assemble and maintain. Instant Plaid Pull-up Trees ($179, solutions.com) come with decorations in place. Simply pull the tree up over a metal stand and plug it in. Plastic trees don’t shed their needles and don’t need to be cared for.
- No risk of a Charlie Brown tree. Artificial trees come in an astonishing array of sizes and appearances. Pre-lit trees save time in assembly, take-down and have been credited for reducing domestic squabbles.

Cons:

- Gigantic carbon footprint. Artificial trees are usually made from petroleum and shipped from China; the pole and branches are primarily made of steel while the needles are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also known as vinyl, or polyethylene (PE).
- PVC is not biodegradable and can’t be recycled; if incinerated, the PVC in the trees emits dioxins and other carcinogens. The manufacture of PVC also creates dioxins.
- Lead is often used as a PVC stabilizer. Lead, a toxic metal that can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, is dangerous for children. University of North Carolina researchers tested the lead content in branches, on hands after contact and in dust under the tree. They found that “while the average artificial Christmas tree does not present a significant exposure risk, in the worst-case scenario a substantial health risk to young children is quite possible.”
- Phthalates are used to manufacture PVC plastic. Phthalates are a chemical that have been shown to have hormone-like effects. Congress recently passed a bill banning phthalates in children’s toys. Major retailers including Target and Toys “R” Us are phasing out products with PVC.
- No natural scent. Some people solve this by using aerosol sprays or pine-scented air fresheners, but the fumes from most products contain dozens of chemicals, including several classified as toxic or hazardous, according to a University of Washington study.

Farmed Trees

Pros:

- More environmentally friendly than artificial trees. An estimated 40 million to 45 million trees were planted in 2008 in North America, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (realchristmastrees.org). The tree farms provide habitat for wildlife, remove dust and pollen from the air and absorb carbon dioxide. Plus they smell good.
- Renewable and recyclable. Most tree farms plant one to three trees for every one that is cut. The branches and trees can be ground into mulch. Recycled trees have been used to make sand and soil erosion barriers and been placed in ponds for fish shelters, according to the University of Illinois Extension. To find a tree recycler, go to realchristmastrees.org or earth911.com.
- Can be locally produced.
- Hardy. Tree farms are often placed in areas that would otherwise be unusable, such as barren slopes or areas under power lines.

Cons:

- Pesticide use. Christmas trees require several applications of chemicals to control pests and speed growth. While the chemical residue on cut trees is minimal, the pesticides used in Christmas tree production have been detected in groundwater or well water. Both pyrethroids and the more toxic class of organophosphates are used on Christmas trees. Pyrethroids are responsible for a growing number of human poisoning incidents involving pesticides in the U.S., according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity.
- Higher maintenance. You have to haul the tree home, put the darn thing up and water it. And the needles can fall off.
- You can’t always get what you want. Most consumers want a thick, full tree, but you’re at the mercy of the suppliers. Sparse Charlie Brown trees with short needles are becoming more popular, according to the NCTA, but less sheared trees are often harder to find.
- Cost: At Lowe’s (lowes.com), real trees range from $39 to $299.

‘Environmentally Responsible’ Trees

These cut trees have similar pros and cons to regular real trees with the following differences:

Pros:

- Trees are certified. An independent party evaluates growers on several criteria, including erosion control/soil conservation, integrated pest management (IPM) and tributary protection, said Joe Sharp, president and founder of the Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers (christmastreecoalition.org).
- Trees grown with minimal chemicals. Ladybugs, for example, which keep aphids and mites under control, are one of a Christmas tree’s best friends. IPM principles also stress worker health, biodiversity and education.

Cons:

- Shipping costs. Environmentally responsible trees found at Menards (menards.com) come from Oregon–closer than China but farther than Illinois.
- Slightly more expensive. Price depends on the species but “ours might be a few dollars more,” said Sharp.

Doing Without a Tree?

- Decorate a houseplant.
- Buy a potted tree that can be planted in your yard after the holidays
- String up lights on a tree in your front yard; add garland strings of cranberries and popcorn. You can pile presents beneath decorated evergreen boughs.
- Troll the Internet for a vintage aluminum tree; virgin aluminum is not better than a renewable resource.
- Build your own wooden tree.

© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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