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Faux Christmas Tree Crop Yields Special Concerns

Written by on Thursday, 11 December 2003 6:00 pm
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They won't fill the house with that robust evergreen aroma associated with real pine, but faux Christmas trees are a far cry from the original fakes made from feathers and animal hair centuries ago.

Convenience, health concerns and cost savings -- which can be as artificial as the tree -- have convinced more households to erect a plastic Christmas tree instead of the real thing since 1990.

Symmetrical, without those irritating bald spots and crooked trunks that go unnoticed until a real tree is home, fake trees go up, down and into storage with erector-set ease. From two inches to 20 feet tall, many come prewired with lights, they don't drop sticky, icky pine needles, and you don't have to crush or dampen Santa's deliveries trying to water them.

"It's a real hassle taking trees into the house and out of the house. They dry out and become more of a fire hazard," said Brown Allen, owner of House of Trees in Little Rock, AR.

Manufacturers also boast that nesting bugs and spiders are rare, allergies are of little concern and, beginning at around $100, they can be cost efficient. A few years after buying a quality fake, it will begin to save you money on buying a real tree every year.

A tree stored in the attic or basement offers the added convenience of erecting it when you wish, and you always have the option of buying a real tree or falling back on the fake.

"With artificial trees you can put them up when it's convenient. You can put them up in October. Some people put them up year round," Allen said.

With looks that deceive, artificial trees are, however, largely foreign-made products that cut into the profits of American farmers. Ironically, they also raise environmental concerns similar to those raised when they first grew from the minds of inventors.

Last year, Americans purchased more real trees (22.3 million) than artificial ones (7 million), but because so many households previously purchased fake trees, a record 70 percent of households displaying Christmas trees put the fakes on display, compared to 30 percent of households that went traipsing through Christmas tree farms, lots and retail stores to put up real ones, according to St. Louis, MO-based National Christmas Tree Association.

Real tree sales have declined every year since 1999 when 35.3 million were sold. The peak sales record for real tree sales was 37 million in 1991. On the other hand, the number of fake trees displayed has grown from 36.6 million in 1990 to 57.2 million last year -- down from a peak display level of 60.2 million in 2001, according to the tree association.

"I think it's a natural progression. When we were young, we went up in the mountains. When we had little kids, we went up in the mountains. As everybody got older, we went to Christmas tree lots. Then, to places like Rite-Aid. We actually bought a tree from there one year. Now, we buy a fake tree," said baby boomer Gail Petty, a San Jose, CA mother-of-five.

"It's up to the kids to start their own 'up in the mountains' tradition when they get out on their own," she added.

Deemed sacrilege by some, artificial Christmas trees actually may have appeared in early America before real Christmas trees, according to the University of Illinois Extension.

The Extension says the first Christmas trees were for kids in the German Moravian Church's settlement in Bethlehem, PA in 1747. Not actual trees, wooden tree-shaped pyramids were covered with evergreen branches and decorated with candles at a time when fire safety was not a burning issue.

Additional historic accounts also point to the German influence -- during the Revolutionary War Hessian mercenaries from Germany, and German settlers throughout eastern Pennsylvania, imported the Christmas tree tradition from the Old World.

The proximity of lush forests to early American settlements quickly made real evergreens the decorative centerpiece of choice during the Christmas holiday. However, it wasn't long before the need for convenience in East Coast boom towns became an issue. In 1851, entrepreneur Mark Carr hauled two sleds loaded with pines from the Catskills and sold them from the nation's first retail tree lot in New York City, according to the Christmas Archives.

At about the same time, German craftsmanship was responding to the Old World's cry for conservation of its dwindling fir tree forests and invented the popular Goose Feather Tree, often considered among the official first fake Christmas trees. Similar products exported to America used metal wire trees affixed with goose, turkey, ostrich or swan feathers -- often dyed to imitate the color of pine.

Back in the New World, it wasn't until the 1930s that American ingenuity from the Addis Brush Company created the U.S.'s first fake Christmas tree. More robust (for heavier ornament hanging) than Germany's wire and feather trees, Addis' tree was made of the same animal hair bristles -- dyed green -- used to make toilet brushes.

Addis, Alcoa and others later created shiny aluminum trees with a potential electrocution hazard that necessitated lighting, not by stringing bulbs, but with a revolving light source with colored gels to created different hues cast on the shimmering tree. Pink "flocked" trees was another passing faux tree fad.

Kooky, kitschy and other older, mass-produced tree knock-offs have been collected for nostalgic reasons, but they now sit like ticking time bombs in attics and basements. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, over time, has recalled some models of fake trees because of fire hazards due to included electrical wiring and has issued warnings about the use of others.

One of today's newest and loopiest artificial trees is designed with a sort of original Apple iMac-mode of candy colors.

Dallas, TX-based Magichristmas.com offers "holographic mylar" models in crimson, silver, aqua, gold, lime and purple. From $200 to $250, the trees are prestrung with matching lights, cords and branches for a blinding shimmer that can stand on its own without ornaments.

Rather than sparkling with Technicolor hues, most artificial trees today emulate the real thing so well it's difficult to tell them apart -- well except for one 'minor' detail.

Made primarily of ubiquitous, fire-resistant polyvinyl chloride (PVC), tinted evergreen and perfectly shaped to appear like Douglas fir, Fraser fir, Scotch pine and others -- often with little plastic pine cones -- artificial trees smell, well, like artificial trees.

"I don't know how you can get a bunch of metal and plastic to smell like anything. I guess you can use some (pine) air freshener or spray some Pinesol around," said Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the National Tree Association.

Artificial trees are fire resistant, but that doesn't mean they won't burn, just that they are resistant to igniting and once ignited will extinguish relatively quickly.

Safety experts advise using only Underwriters Laboratory (UL) approved lighting and electrical equipment.

"Fiber optic filaments are not always UL approved. If you have older larger bulbs, plug them in for an hour if they get hot to the touch do not use them on your tree," said House Of Trees' Allen.

That also applies to real trees.

Coming full circle from the Germans' desire to save their forests, fake trees raise concerns about the environment today.

At about $33 for the national mean cost of a real tree, it takes a few years to begin to realize savings on a fake tree that costs about $100. The savings is further off for more expensive trees, and even fake trees that cost hundreds of dollars don't last forever. After a few years dust and fading can settle in and the prospect of cleaning thousands of tiny little fake pine needles removes the convenience factor.

Real trees can be recycled more easily than discarded artificial trees, which, after about six to nine years of ownership, typically wind up at the dump, according to the National Tree Association.

"(Artificial trees) are non-biodegradable so they just sit in the landfill for a millennium," said Dungey.

"You have two choices. You can buy a product produced on a North American farm just like any other crop, pumpkins, corn, wheat and carrots, or you can buy a nonbiodegradable product made in a Chinese factory. Take your pick," said Dungey.

At least one company, American Christmas Co. in Tomball, TX offers a discount to trade-up buyers who buy a new tree and then send (at the customer's cost) the old tree in for recycling.

When possible, old trees are repaired, cleaned and donated to charitable organizations. Trees the company can't restore are sent to a recycling company which converts the tree to raw materials.

The discount varies based on the size and condition of the old tree.

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  About the author, Broderick Perkins

Individual news stories are based upon the opinions of the writer and does not reflect the opinion of Realty Times.