There's one thing environmentalists tend to agree on: Small, daily eco- friendly lifestyle changes such as skipping bottled water or using less paper can make a positive difference.
But this time of year, a common question arises among "green" devotees.
Which is less taxing on the environment: live, fresh Christmas trees or artificial ones?
Some people figure a live tree is altogether better for the planet because it gives back — through erosion prevention, the creation of oxygen and the reduction of carbon dioxide — more than cutting it will take away. But other eco-smart Christmas decorators swear by artificial trees because they are reusable and prevent deforestation.
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Meredith Bradford is with Treetopia.com, an online artificial-tree store. She likens the issue to similar green- movement debates, including whether to use cloth or disposable diapers, or traditional toilet paper versus recycled fabric scraps.
"It really ends up being a personal decision," Bradford says. "What works best for you?"
A study released by climate-change expert Clint Springer of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia suggests that live trees are a "carbon-neutral purchase." They release negligible amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when they decompose, and local harvesters use less fuel to haul them than the interstate and international shipping of artificial trees.
Plus, tree farmers commonly plant two or three seedlings each year for a single tree that has been cut down for the holiday harvest, says Kristen Fefes, executive director of Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado.
Fefes cites U.S. Forest Service data that says an acre of evergreens creates enough oxygen to supply the daily needs of 18 people. Plus, real trees can be chipped for mulch, while fake trees end up in landfills.
"An artificial tree is a convenient choice, but it's not a sustainable one," Fefes says.
But the carbon footprint from raising a live, farm-grown tree that is later shipped out of state is similar to the carbon footprint created when an artificial tree is shipped from overseas, says Susy Lunger of Beck's Silk Plant Co., which sells artificial trees to shopping malls, hotels, hospitals and homeowners.
Beck's higher-end artificial trees range in cost from $300 to $5,000. Lunger says they don't aggravate allergies, require no watering or pesticides and are fire-resistant. And there's the convenience factor: The ease of high-quality artificial tree-lighting systems, plus no dropping needles and a decade of repeated use. Fans of fake trees list all of these as reasons that theirs is the greener choice.
"The question becomes, what's more sustainable, to have an artificial tree for use for 10 years or purchase one real tree every year for the next 10 years?" Lunger says. "You have to find the answer that's right for your soul."