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

O Christmas tree

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It's the holidays... which for some of us means time to deck the halls with boughs of holly and, oh yeah, pick out a Christmas tree. We sent reporter Jennifer Guerra to find out which tree is greener - real or artificial.

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Transcript: Jennifer Guerra, December 17, 2009

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 Will was born in January.

"We decided that we have to have a tree because it's, like, his first Christmas, and we want to have those family videos of him having his Christmas morning by the Christmas tree and opening his gifts, and just the whole experience because that was important to us growing up and we always had that."

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. So keep it outside so the temperature is more consistent, bring it inside only for a short period of time. (Like how short?) As in December 24th. Will goes to bed, Tom and I are gonna be up decorating that tree and bringing it inside for about 14 hours."

That's probably way too much hassle for 14 hours of Christmas cheer. 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. Fera says the ceiling was charred black and the whole place was smoke-damaged.

"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 petro chemicals 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.

For The Environment Report, I'm Jennifer Guerra.

Copyright 2009 Michigan Public Media, The Regents of the University of Michigan

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