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Choosing a cut Christmas tree is better for the environment

December 11, 2009|By JEFF RUGG / Creators Syndicate

Q: My spouse wants an artificial Christmas tree. He says it is safer, but I think a fresh cut one is better for the environment. Is it?

A: You might not think that cutting down a tree is good for the environment, but it could still be better than the artificial tree. Artificial trees often use a wooden core, so at least one tree was cut down for it. Artificial trees use petroleum and metal resources and are often made overseas, requiring higher shipping costs for raw materials and finished trees. Eventually, the tree will be worn out - it is a difficult item to recycle, so it will probably end up in a landfill. The artificial tree's box might get recycled. Few people think about the final resting state of items when they buy them. The artificial tree will last for more years than a real one, but at what point does it become a better ecological decision?

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Fresh cut Christmas trees are grown on farms. Growers have been preparing your tree for a long time. A 6-foot to 8-foot evergreen tree takes from six to 12 years to grow. This year's tree has survived about a decade's worth of record cold, heat, droughts and floods.

Over one million acres of Christmas tree farms will supply 90 percent of the 30 to 40 million trees harvested this year. Because some trees won't survive, over 100 million trees will be planted next spring to replace them. Each acre of Christmas trees provides the daily oxygen requirements of 18 people. They also provide wildlife habitats and protection from soil erosion.

In the United States, each region originally used the evergreens that were native to that area, keeping shipping costs low. Now, the trees are shipped all over and people in the warm Southern states can choose from trees grown in West Virginia, Michigan and Oregon.

After the holidays, the tree can be recycled in several environmentally beneficial ways. Some towns have collections of the trees so they can be chipped and used as mulch. You can cut off the branches and use them as a mulch to cover areas of the garden. Some forest preserve districts sink them into lakes to provide shelter for small fish. They can be left in a corner of the yard to provide shelter to birds on cold winter days.

Do not burn the tree in the fireplace; the sap can help catch the chimney on fire. Speaking of burning, Christmas trees are not fire hazards by themselves. Just like any other plant or piece of furniture, they don't just burst into flames on their own. It is faulty wiring or some other source of heat or spark that is the real fire hazard.

Fresh trees have flexible and fragrant needles. The sooner you choose a precut tree and get it into water, the longer it will last. Even if you just store it outside in a bucket, it will be better off than sitting on the lot with no water.

Selecting a good Christmas tree requires several steps. Before you leave home, measure the location where the tree is going so you know how tall and how wide the tree can be (include the star or angle topper in the measurement). The location should not be near any heating ducts that can't be closed or duct- taped shut. A sunny window may be warm and dry out a tree too quickly.

The open pores at the bottom of the tree's trunk will become clogged with resin and dirt. Have the tree seller cut off the bottom inch of trunk. Or when the tree is home, you can cut off the bottom 1 or 2 inches of the trunk so water can be taken in. Make the cut on a diagonal, not flat across the bottom - the cut will not be blocked when it is on the bottom of the tree stand. Do not make the cut at too steep of an angle; it will not stay under water. Water keeps the tree fresh, which prevents needle drop and increases resistance to fire. Check the water level several times a day for the first few days, since a fresh tree can use several gallons of water during that time.

E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg, University of Illinois Extension, at rugg@illinois.edu.

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