O Christmas Tree

If you want to be as eco-savvy as possible this holiday season, get a real tree — then replant it

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Ben Stechschulte / Redux for TIME

Every December throughout my childhood, my father would rise from the couch on a Sunday afternoon and tell us that it was time to chop down the Christmas tree. But the Walsh men are not outdoorsmen; firmly suburban, we're at most screened-in-porch men. So by cutting down the yule tree, my dad meant climbing into the attic and bringing down the tinsel-covered bits of plastic and tubing, then assembling them into something resembling Tannenbaum form. Yes, though it shames me to say it now, we were a faux-fir family.

But is an artificial tree so bad? A new study by the well-regarded sustainability firm PE Americas found that owning an artificial tree--as do an estimated 50 million households in the U.S.--caused lower carbon emissions over a decade than did buying real trees 10 years in a row, chiefly because of the gasoline used to get a cut tree from farm to living room. The big caveats, however, are that the study focused on carbon and was sponsored by the American Christmas Tree Association, which works with artificial-tree makers.

Ask environmentalists the which-is-greener question, and most will side with the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), which represents live-tree growers. "Even if you use a fake tree for 10 years, when you throw it away, it's not biodegradable," says the NCTA's communications director, Rick Dungey. "It's always better to use a natural product over an artificial one."

Though more than 30 million live Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year, almost all Christmas trees are raised on commercial farms--which makes them a renewable resource more akin to a stalk of corn than to a wild Douglas fir in the forest. When a yule tree is chopped down and sold, farms will plant another one in its place, making that part of the process carbon-neutral. The fossil fuel burned to transport the trees from farm to hearth is another matter. But given that most artificial trees are manufactured and shipped from China, fakes have their fuel costs too.

Then there's the stuff that artificial trees are made of. One ingredient in most fake firs is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a plastic that is difficult to recycle. And while new artificial trees pose little threat to children's health, Mike Schade, the PVC-campaign coordinator for the activist group Center for Health, Environment and Justice, notes that older plastic trees tend to have higher levels of lead, a potent neurotoxin.

But just buying a live tree doesn't guarantee a green Christmas. Instead of simply tossing your tree in the trash on Dec. 26, recycle it. Thousands of municipalities across the country offer Christmas-tree-recycling programs; you can look them up on earth911.com The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will even collect discarded trees and use them to create underwater forests in man-made lakes, sprucing up the habitats of fish and other aquatic critters.

Extreme greens opt to get a real tree with root-ball intact, keep it alive through the stressful holiday season--then find a place to replant it. That might be easy if you have a green thumb and a backyard big enough to absorb a Douglas fir: lug the potted tree inside for the holidays, then outside once your New Year's hangover has cleared. If you keep the tree in a planter, you can reuse it every year and save on gas.

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