But in the eyes of many environmentalists, Freshley could have made a better choice than buying that artificial tree last year at a Costco near her home in Gaithersburg. Even tree huggers are encouraging Americans to go out every December and buy a real tree from a lot or go to a farm, cut one down, and drag it home because tree farms are good for the atmosphere.
Artificial trees have been gaining ground in American living rooms — 50 million fake trees vs. 30 million fresh ones, according to the two competing industry groups, the long-standing National Christmas Tree Association (which supports real trees) and the more recently formed American Christmas Tree Association (defends artificial trees).
But the real trees aren’t going down without a fight. The battle comes to a head on Saturday — two weeks before Christmas — the Christmas trees’ own Black Friday, expected to be the highest-traffic day in tree buying. And at the forefront of the argument is which kind of tree is better for the environment.
For a symbol of yuletide cheer, the tree brings out some pretty hostile rhetoric. One side’s Web site says fake Christmas trees were invented as oversize “green toilet brushes.” The other’s claims that “after two weeks of being indoors, a live Christmas tree emitted significant amounts of mold spores.”
Each side offers what it considers compelling evidence.
Real fir — along with pine and spruce — has benefits beyond a fresh smell that says Christmas, supporters say. The trees’ purchase encourages farmers to keep planting acres that absorb carbon dioxide from the air, soak up storm-water runoff full of nutrient and sediment pollution before it pours into waterways such as the Chesapeake Bay, and provide habitat for wildlife.
The real trees also have a smaller carbon footprint than ones made with plastic and shipped mostly from factories in China, said Stephanie Flack, Potomac River Project director for the Nature Conservancy. “This time of year, while people are thinking of gifts they get from under the tree, they should be thinking about the gift from trees,” Flack said.
But the American Christmas Tree Association would say that Freshley’s fake-tree purchase was the greener choice. The group cites a study to support its view that fake trees have a lower carbon footprint — if consumers hold on to fake trees for six to 10 years — considering the energy it takes to chop, water and transport fresh trees annually.
The study did not say how long the typical tree buyer holds on to faux firs. But at any rate, the group says, most fake trees go back into a box, rather than a street curb for pickup by a truck.
Real trees have other drawbacks: Some, such as the Fraser fir, are susceptible to a deadly water mold that can infect other trees, according to the Sierra Club, and nearly all firs are doused with pesticides to kill invasive pests such as the Douglas fir beetle.