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Real vs. Artificial Christmas Tree

Here's how the two options match up:

When it comes to the real-versus-fake debate, Christmas trees are a bit like women's breasts. Aesthetics, health issues, cost, longevity and that tricky subconscious category, 'What you were used to as a child,' ensure this is a debate that stirs everyone. Here's how the two options match up.

Materials consumed

Real trees take seven years to grow to 7 feet, need a couple of square yards of land to themselves, may use some pesticides and are solar-powered. In the Pacific Northwest, transportation costs are low. Native noble and Douglas firs go easy on the soil.

According to Dresden Skees-Gregory, sustainability coordinator at Portland State University (she keeps the campus green), real Christmas trees are greener.

'In a life-cycle analysis of a plastic tree, looking at mining the raw materials (metal, oil), the health costs to workers who make plastics such as PVC, transportation costs which dwarf all others in terms of carbon output, and how they are impossible to recycle and difficult to dispose of, cutting down a real tree is much less costly to the environment.'

Advantage: Real

Price

According to Bryan Ostlund, executive secretary of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association in Salem (www.nwtrees.com), a 7-foot noble fir retails for about $45 this year.

Meanwhile at Fred Meyer, you can get a 7 1/2-foot prelit 'Frasier Fir' with realistic needles for $229.99. Alternatively, there's a 7 1/2-foot prelit 'Alpine Spruce' with flat, square-ended needles for $129.99.

A real tree must be replaced every year. Skees-Gregory, 33, says her parents use a plastic tree that is older than she is. Fakes pay for themselves in about three years and can last decades, although built-in lights are the weak link. Plastic trees would cost a lot more if not for the cheap Chinese labor.

Advantage: Artificial

Aesthetics

''Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all/Ye know on earth … '

Not so fast , Mr. Keats - true trees don't come in silver.

On the other hand, real trees fit in with the trend for domestic naturalism, however token, and they remind us that mankind is still trailing nature at the end of the third quarter. The evergreen tree has long been a pagan symbol of rebirth related to the winter solstice, while some Christians say it represents the 'tree' of the cross.

According to a survey commissioned by the National Christmas Tree Association, in 2005 32.8 million real trees were sold, compared with 9.3 million artifical trees sold.

Advantage: Tie

Convenience

Artificial trees don't need water, complex stands or trimming. They don't shed, and heavy ornaments don't make them droop. Natural trees are like a pet, and by Jan. 1 you'll be wanting to drop them off across town.

According to Metro, real trees can be left whole at the curb on yard-debris day (every other week) for recycling, at a cost of $4 for up to 8 feet, $6 for trees longer than 8 feet. On non-yard debris days, the fees are $6 and $8.

Advantage: Artificial

Ritual

Real-tree lovers hack out to Boring or Carver with the family, down some hot chocolate, cut and bale their own, then trim and decorate it while singing carols. It's a ritual that can fill a whole weekend. Also, seeing a tree through from field to chipper brings a pleasant closure.

Getting Old Fakey from its trash bag in the attic takes about five minutes.

But do kids give a flying fairy so long as it twinkles and has presents? And Christmas is all about the kids, isn't it?

Advantage: Real

Local factor

If you're into local and organic, tree growers here work direct with the retailer, and the money largely stays in the Oregon economy. Organic trees are available at area stands, although over seven years a tree can look a bit battered by aphids. (Most farmers use pesticides mainly to stop grass growing up into the tree, Ostlund says.)

Advantage: Real

Personal health issues

Most people like the smell of a real tree, but it can cause allergies. Skees-Gregory uses an artificial tree because her husband has allergies. 'I waited until low-energy LED lights came out,' she explains. 'We tried having no tree one year, and it was too depressing.'

Advantage: Artificial

Verdict

Real is greener, but such considerations quickly can go out the window when it comes to staging happy memories.

On the fence? For $75 Portland's Original Living Christmas Tree Co. (www.livingchristmastrees.org, delivery area may be limited) will rent you a live one in a pot, then pick it up after New Year's for replanting.

- Joseph Gallivan

We'll investigate a green dilemma each month in Sustainable Life. Have a question? E-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..