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Plastic or Pine?

A look at which types of holiday trees are selling at local retailers and a poll on which tree you prefer.

Will this year’s holiday tree be artificial or real?

While the type of tree that sells best varies from store to store, both artificial and cut trees are in high demand among local retailers.

“We sold a bunch of cut trees this past weekend,” reported an employee working the tree lot at San Ramon’s Orchard Supply Hardware.

But Orchard’s artificial trees sell well, too.

“I wouldn’t say it’s 50-50, but we do sell a lot of them,” she said. “Ours come pre-lit, so customers don’t have to worry about putting lights on them.”

A garden associate at Home Depot in San Ramon – which carries both cut and artificial trees - said the store has been selling cut trees for about 16 years.

“We’ve always sold more cut trees,” he said, adding the sales ratio of cut trees vs. artificial trees would be “around 100 to one.”

“You should come by on a Saturday afternoon - you’d be amazed,” he said. “This coming weekend will be one of the busiest here.”

Target in San Ramon used to sell cut trees, back when they had a garden center.

Monique De La Torre, one of the managers at Target, said their artificial trees are good sellers and are currently being offered at a discounted price.

“Our trees are selling really well right now,” she said. “We have to keep replenishing them, so we know they are going fast.”

She said that one of the advantages of artificial trees is they can be reused.

“One of the benefits of an artificial tree over a live one is that you get to use it year after year – you’re not throwing it out,” De La Torre said. “And it will last a long time if you take care of it.”

She recommends storing the tree in its original box or a plastic storage bin to help keep out moisture and bugs.

Costco in Danville sells artificial trees but not cut ones. Jason, one of the managers, said they offer pre-lit trees in two sizes: 7-foot and 9-foot.

“We sell out every year,” he said. “They’re a very popular product.”

Jason agrees with De La Torre that the main advantage of artificial trees is convenience and reusability.

Costco in Livermore sells both cut and artificial trees, but the quantity of artificial trees they carry is limited.

“We have more fresh trees because that’s what people like,” said Emily, one of Costco’s supervisors. “They smell better and they sell better than artificial trees.”

De La Torre said Target customers are buying pine-scented candles or scented pine cones to add that pine aroma.

San Ramon’s Home Depot and Lowe’s in Dublin carry pine-scented sticks that can be hung on an artificial tree like ornaments.

When it comes to the question of which type of holiday tree is better for the environment, opinions vary.

“People are becoming more ‘green’ and realizing that cutting down trees is not the best thing for the environment,” De La Torre said.

Johnny Moore of Danville, owner of Moore’s Bay Area Christmas Tree Lot – with a location at Forest Home Farms in San Ramon – disagrees. He said he is not fond of fake trees for several reasons.

“For one thing, they’re made in China under zero regulations,” he said.

Artificial trees are made in factories where the employees earn about $100 a month handling toxic materials without any protection.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, about 85 percent of artificial trees are made in China. Most are made from metals and plastics, including PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – a potential source of lead. The manufacture and production of artificial trees emits harmful pollutants called dioxins, a byproduct of PVC.

Of all the man-made chemicals in existence, dioxin is the most toxic.

Many artificial trees come in boxes with warning labels that say: "This product may contain a substance or chemical known to the state of California to cause birth defects or reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling."

Moore also pointed out that customers get frustrated when tree parts get lost or when lights on pre-lit trees go out.

“A lot of people end up unhappy with fake trees because they lose some of the parts when they go to put them back into the box,” Moore said. “And if some of the lights go out, you’re out of luck.”

That creates more waste since artificial trees cannot be recycled.

Wayne Strauch, who grows Christmas trees in Oregon and Mt. Shasta, explained that real trees are good for the environment.

“Young trees are great oxygen producers and provide a habitat for lots of critters,” he said. “And they’re typically grown in soil that’s not much good for anything else.”

Strauch said tree farmers plant more trees than they need, so the amount of trees in the ground essentially remains the same.

“This helps prevent soil erosion,” he said.

He also pointed out that most cut trees are composted these days, so they don’t go to waste once the holidays are over.

A cut tree can be recycled if it is "clean" (i.e., no flocking, ornaments, tinsel or base). San Ramon Scouts collect trees for recycling every year for a small donation. The trees are taken to Athan Downs Park, where Waste Management (contracted by the city of San Ramon) collects them to be ground up and sold as mulch or composted, according to David Krueger, city recycling manager.

There is a third option for that holiday tree: A living tree in a container. But they can be expensive and not everyone wants to deal with planting a living tree when the holidays are over.

Now people can rent a living tree from a Christmas tree rental company, like Rent a Living Christmas Tree in Carmel or San Jose Christmas Tree Rental in the South Bay.

These are two of only a small handful of businesses in the United States that raise trees in pots and rent them out for the holiday season. Both were featured last week in the Contra Costa Times.

Established in 2009, Rent a Living Christmas Tree started out serving Monterey County and expanded last year to include the South Bay.

The plan, according to co-owner Monica Hudson, was to service the East Bay this year, but due to such high demand in the South Bay, the company has only been able to deliver a few group orders to Berkeley and Oakland.

Hudson said the trees are delivered at the beginning of the holidays and picked up at the end. They are numbered, so customers can request the same tree the following year.

"It's kind of like having an old friend come back," she said.

Renting a tree is a more sustainable option, according to Hudson, because the tree will continue to live and grow and be enjoyed.

"You have done a good thing for the environment, and it's convenient, too," she said.

San Jose Christmas Tree Rental owner Eric Manning told the Contra Costa Times he’s been renting Christmas trees off and on for the past several years as part of his regular plant-leasing business.

“It’s great, what with everyone being into repurposing and reusing,” he said. “And you don’t really have to do anything about it yourself. No needles to clean up. No dead tree to put out on the curb.”  

What do you think?

Do you agree with Johnny Moore, who declared: “Santa says, ‘A real tree is a real Christmas’”?

Or do you favor the convenience of an artificial tree?

Vote in our poll and discuss the issue in the comments section.

Kristin December 04, 2011 at 05:34 AM
My family all has artificial trees because we are highly allergic to the real ones. Tis the time of year for me to carry allergy meds in case I end up somewhere with a real one.
isabel Lau December 04, 2011 at 03:59 PM
Thank you Kristin, that is exactly why we have an artificial tree and have for many years. Many of us would like to have the real thing but due to allergies/asthma must give up the beauty and scent of a real tree for the sake of those it negatively impacts.
Anne Cavazos December 05, 2011 at 05:35 PM
Our family has had the same artificial tree for the past 8 years. It is 12 ft tall and is not pre-lit so we can add our own lights. I would like a real tree but this tree was paid for once and has eliminated agruments between my husband and me in the Christmas tree lot. :) If I was to buy one today I would look for a tree made in the USA and check for the toxin levels. My husband said he is going to calculate the carbon footprint of our tree so we make sure we keep it long enough. Happy Holidays!
Amy McCurdy December 06, 2011 at 05:52 PM
Thanks, Kristin and Isabel, for pointing out the allergy issue. That is definitely a serious drawback of real Christmas trees.
JJ December 13, 2011 at 07:36 AM
We head up into the mountains every year and cut our own. Nice, Fresh and $50 for any tree you can carry.....we can carry a pretty big tree.

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