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Italy Faces The “Real Or Fake” Christmas Tree Debate

From St. Peter's Square to Tuscan farms, Italians weigh the effects of the "growth" of plastic Christmas trees imported from China

MILAN - The tree in St. Peter's Square is a 30-meter tall fir from the Italian Alps. The Douglas fir adorning the White House was carried by a horse-drawn carriage and welcomed inside by First Lady Michelle Obama. In Milan's Piazza Duomo, a 50-meter tall, 12-ton tree was lit up with about a hundred thousand energy-efficient bulbs.

The appeal of these Christmas Trees is undeniable. Yet, many wonder: is real really better than fake? The "War of the Christmas Trees' pits Chinese plastic against home-grown bark and resin?

Five million Italians have opted for synthetic trees. To make life easy, some even come already decorated, others are colored red, silver or golden. Synthetic trees do not dirty the floor, can be dismantled and then reassembled again, last a long time, and are eco-friendly, some say, because they do not entail cutting actual trees.

To another six million, however, Christmas is not Christmas without a real fir tree. They are spending an estimated 140 million euro to get their hands on one.

Coldiretti, an Italian farm group, is on a mission this holiday season: debunk the idea that synthetic trees are good for the environment.

The group says the hundreds of thousands of fake trees that are expected to be sold for Christmas will be highly polluting agents. "Chinese ‘trees' are made of plastic and metal alloys, such as PVC alloy, which are a source of pollution, both when the trees are being produced and during transportation and disposal," according to a Coldiretti statement.

For each of these synthetic trees, about 23 kilograms of Co2 are emitted, because of the long distances traveled to import them, and because they are not very biodegradable. After a fake tree is thrown out, it will be another 200 years before it disappears from the face of the earth, according to Coldiretti.

On the contrary, a real tree that is grown in a nursery, while growing for 5 or 6 years, subtracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is good. Six million trees means some 282,000 fewer kilos of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Besides, Coldiretti says, there's a tree for every wallet, from 20 to 500 euros.

Coldiretti is fighting to preserve the real Christmas Tree, noting the additional payoffs if the mini firs comes from Italian regions such as Tuscany or Veneto. Some 90 percent of the Christmas Trees of Italian origin come from about 1,000 farms, which use peripheral land that would otherwise be abandoned. They also employ some 10,000 people. The remaining 10 percent comes from pruning that is indispensable in the life of the woods, the farm group says.

While they're at it, the farmers are also pushing home-grown decorations this year: fruits, vegetables and berries: oranges, red peppers, holly, as well as chestnuts and walnuts, low price and no waste. So far, at least, no one in Italy is campaigning to save electricity by returning to lighting up Christmas Trees with candles. We can all agree that would be a fire hazard.

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