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A greener tree

Santa, Santa, lest we fall,
What's the greenest tree of all?

Mother Jones magazine recently took up the question as one of its "Econundrums" features. "Real cut evergreens are awfully Christmasy, but isn't it wasteful to grow and then harvest a tree for the express purpose of adding holiday cheer to your hearth?" writes the Econundrist.

"I've thought about going plastic: Fake trees can last for a long time. My friend and her mom have been using the same one since the '80s. And it's very lifelike! On the other hand, it doesn't fill their living room with a piney scent like a cut tree would. Then again, was there ever a better excuse to buy a scented candle?"

Alas, the Econundrist doesn't reach a conclusion, and I'm not surprised. I've seen "studies" of every sort, pushing one kind of tree or the other. The debate seems as never-ending as the diaper one — cloth or disposable?

Here's the Econundrist's brief rundown of the pros and cons:

  1. Cut trees produce oxygen, but require tons of pesticides and herbicides. Meanwhile, 85 percent of fake trees are imported from China, and most are made with PVC, a toxic plastic. Some contain lead.

  2. Fires involving cut Christmas trees cause some $16 million in property damage each year. 13 percent happen in February or later. Many plastic trees are flame retardant, but if you do manage to set one on fire, it will burn very hot and emit toxins such as dioxin.

  3. The cut-tree industry says 93 percent of Christmas trees are recycled through community programs. Fake trees typically come with five-year warranties, but stay in landfills for centuries.

In 2007, the magazine ran a chart comparing real and fake.

Meanwhile, St. Joe's prof Clint Springer has weighed in, saying real trees top plastic because they are basically carbon-neutral. But plastic ones, made from petroleum and destined for the landfill, produce it. Read the MSNBC report here.

Then again, you could buy a live one and plant it afterward, but sometimes they die anyway because they've been inside too long.

Whichever tree you get, make sure the lights are LED instead of incandescent; they use a fraction of the electricity. Most major trees — including the national trees in Washington, Philadelphia's tree, most of the Longwood lighting displays, etc. — have gone LED as well.

Then again, maybe the tree with the greenest lighting is the one erected in Copenhagen's City Hall Square, near where international climate negotiations are taking place. Its white lights come on only when enough passersby pause to pedal one of the stationary bicycles around the tree to generate enough electricity.