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Fir or Plastic? Oakland residents weigh their Christmas tree options

on November 29, 2011

Megan Reed and Christine Landry are in the market for two Christmas trees, as they push a stroller with their infant son through aisles of options at the Simonis Christmas Tree Lot on Telegraph Avenue and 51st Street on a quiet Monday morning.

Reed and Landry usually buy one Christmas tree for their home, but they’re going for two this year because grandma is visiting and needs one for her place. “We got kind of the ‘junior Charlie Brown’ for ourselves, and this noble fir for grandma,” said Reed, motioning to a taller, four-foot tall tree standing in front of her.

Around this time of year, Christmas tree shoppers face a number of questions: not just what size to buy, and where it should be placed, but also where to buy it, and whether they should go real or go fake. Some, like Reed and Landry, prefer to buy from a local tree lot rather from the parking lot of a drugstore or a big box store. And some people, especially here in the Bay Area, are looking for options with as little impact on the environment as possible.

According to Beck Cowles, the program manager of information services at the Ecology Center in Berkeley, even the humble Christmas tree has an effect on the environment. They take about 7 to 10 years to grow, often in lots where pesticides and fertilizers are used. They are then trucked to local lots, adding to their carbon footprints, and only used for a month before being discarded and again trucked to a landfill. “That whole lifecycle is what you’re trying to break,” she said.

The best option for the environment is to buy a live tree or a bush, said Cowles. “It can be used over the years or planted after the holidays,” she said. Cowles recommended contacting a local nursery and asking for a tree that can be used over the years.

Cowles said the next best option would be to cut your own at a local organic tree farm. Trees can also be rented online—Friends of the Urban Forest and SF Environment are offering trees for the holidays for $75 for San Francisco residents.

Cowles said it’s probably not a better for the environment to choose a synthetic tree over a tree sold from a lot. “Which is worse, I’m not really sure,” she said. “Plastic in general has a really high impact. And then there’s disposal.”

As for natural trees, Cowles said the best way to dispose of one is to put it out on the curb and let the city pick it up in January so it gets “back in the compost cycle.”

Growers who sell their trees at local lots say they also have the environment in mind. Louis Simonis, working at the Simonis Lot which is owned by his brother John, said that the trees in their lot come from either the Sierra Cascades north of Mount Shasta, or east of Portland in Oregon. He said chemicals aren’t used in growing the trees and the company takes care of the area where the trees grow. “We’re not clear-cutting an area,” he said. “We select a few areas and let some smaller trees grow. It’s a cycle.”

As Louis Simonis packed up their trees for their car, Reed and Landry continued to stroll around the lot and check out the trees. Landry said that while the couple is concerned about the impact on the environment that buying a tree from a lot could have, “tradition wins out.” They’re both from the East Coast and grew up cutting down trees with their families, Reed said. “We really like to get a tree,” she said. “We try to be eco-friendly in other ways, like re-using wrapping paper.”


  1. Samantha on December 3, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Every year I try my best to find the most environmentally friendly Christmas tree (I will never buy fake, the plastic is just horrifying). So thank you for posting this, although it could have been much more in depth it’s a good start to get people thinking. I am going to go here to get my tree this year:

  2. Nora Simmons on December 9, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    I bought my (real) tree today and am wondering about the mesh netting that some lots use, the kind that compacts the tree making it easier to transport without shedding. I’m surprised it’s allowed, as I’m sure it ends up in landfills and waterways where it can endanger wildlife. (I spent 1/2 hr. cutting it up with scissors.) Another “convenience” that we can’t live without?

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