Real or plastic Christmas tree?

The Christmas tree: it’s a quintessential part of the holiday season. But it turns out not all festive trees are made equal — at least not when it comes to environmental friendliness.

So, which is better for the planet — a freshly cut tree or a fake one?

The short answer, which may come as a surprise to some, is a real tree. But it’s actually more complicated than that.

It ultimately depends on a variety of factors, including how far you drive to get your evergreen and how you dispose of it at the end of the holidays ― and, if you choose an artificial tree, how long you end up using it.

Here’s an explainer on how to make the more Earth-friendly choice this Christmas season:

1 If you choose an artificial tree, you need to use it for a very long time

An artificial tree needs to be reused for many years to make it more environmentally friendly than buying a fresh-cut tree annually. According to forester Bill Cook, a fake tree would have to be used for more than eight to nine years. A 2009 study out of Montreal, however, concluded it would take more than 20 years of use to make it a more eco-friendly choice.

Artificial trees have “three times more impact on climate change and resource depletion than natural trees,” said the study, conducted by the consulting firm Ellipsos.

2 Most fake trees are made from toxic, non-recyclable materials

Artificial Christmas trees are made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a non-recyclable plastic. PVC has been linked to adverse health and environmental impacts. Fake trees may also be manufactured with lead and other toxic additives.

There are artificial trees on the market that are not made from PVC. Polyethylene plastic (or PE) trees are said to be a less toxic option.

3 If you’re going to buy artificial, choose domestic

More than 85 percent of artificial Christmas trees in the U.S. are imported from China, significantly enlarging their carbon footprint.

If you’re opting for a fake tree, aim to buy one with a “Made In USA” label.

4 Similarly, if you’re buying a real tree, go local

Minimize the number of miles driven to get your Christmas tree. Research shows that driving to get your tree often has more environmental impact than the tree itself.

“If you pick up a real tree close to your home or pick it up on a trip you were going to make anyway, the impact of the real tree is almost nil,” Bert Cregg, a horticulture expert at Michigan State University, told HuffPost.

Buying local also means supporting your community’s growers and businesses, as well as preserving local farmland.

The Christmas Tree Farm Network maintains a comprehensive list of farms in the U.S., organized by state.

5 Real Christmas trees are grown specifically for that purpose

“You’re not doing any harm by cutting down a Christmas tree,” Clint Springer, a botanist and professor of biology at Philadelphia’s Saint Joseph’s University, told The New York Times in an earlier interview. “A lot of people think artificial is better because you’re preserving the life of a tree. But in this case, you’ve got a crop that’s being raised for that purpose.”

6 Christmas tree farms can serve as a habitat for local wildlife

About 350 million trees grow on Christmas tree farms in the United States, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. About 30 million of these trees are harvested annually.

These farms have environmental costs of their own, noted Thomas Harman, who sells artificial Christmas trees. “If you use an artificial tree for 10 years, you need 10 trees, and that is 70 years’ worth of growing trees,” he told Weather.com in 2013. “You have 70 years of water and pesticide consumption.”

Researchers say, however, that pesticides aren’t actually too much of an issue on Christmas tree farms.

“If you look at the continuum of chemical use in U.S. agriculture, Christmas trees production certainly ranks on the low end,” Cregg told Mother Jones in an earlier interview.

Christmas tree farms can also serve as important habitats for local birds, insects and other wildlife.

7 Real trees can be composted or recycled

Don’t just chuck your used Christmas tree in the trash after the holidays. Repurpose or recycle it!

Many towns and cities have curbside pick-up options for recycling Christmas trees, or recycling drop-off centers. Some also offer tree mulching and chipping programs, allowing residents to recycle their trees and take home a free bag of mulch for their garden.

Feeling handy? You can also turn your tree into a DIY project. Create coasters and decorations with the branches and trunk of your tree. Or make some Christmas-scented potpourri.

The bottom line

All things being equal, it seems real Christmas trees are better for the health of the Earth ― and of your family. But depending on a variety of factors, either option can be a good choice.

If you have an artificial tree, reuse it for at least a decade and consider choosing a domestically manufactured, non-PVC option. If you want a real tree, get one close to where you live, and recycle or compost it when the season is over.

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The smallest skyscraper in the world

According to Emporis, a real estate data company, a skyscraper is a “multi-story building whose architectural height is at least 100 metres”. By that measure, the Newby-McMahon building in Wichita Falls, Texas, which is widely known as the “world’s smallest skyscraper”, isn’t actually a skyscraper at all.

In fact, it’s not even close – the building is four storeys and 12 metres tall, which in most peoples’ minds makes it little more than a house with ideas above its station. When it was built in 1919, skyscrapers weren’t reaching the heights they are today – but even then, the Newby-McMahon wouldn’t have cut an impressive figure next to the 241 metre Woolworth building in New York, the world’s tallest building at the time.

Unfortunately for its investors, the building’s limited stature came as shock to pretty much everyone – apart from the man who built it.

J. D. McMahon was the owner of the Wichita Falls oil company, whose offices occupied a one-story brick building on the corner of Seventh and La Salle. Next door was a vacant lot, and during the local boom sparked by the discovery of oil in 1912, he decided to meet the city’s growing demand for office space by turning it into a new skyscraper. The building would, plans appeared to show, be 480 feet (146 metres) tall – not bad for a small city barely past its 40th birthday. 

McMahon drew up blueprints and plans to show investors, who promptly gave him a total of $200,000 (around $2.7m at today’s prices) to get going on construction. Preferring to keep things in-house, he decided to use his own construction company to build the structure. 

This might be why it took the investors a little while to realise they’d been had. Slightly too late, it became apparent that McMahon was not, in fact, building a 480 foot tower: he was building a 480 inch one. The investors tried to bring a lawsuit against him, but the judge found that they didn’t have a case: they’d signed off on the original blueprints. Sure enough, these promised that the building would be 480″ tall, and not, as they’d assumed, 480′.

Construction was completed, if you can call it that, in 1919. The building was 12 feet long, 9 feet wide and 40 feet tall. The elevator company had pulled out, so there wasn’t even a way to get from one floor to the next. And McMahon hadn’t even asked for permission to build on the land. None of this bothered him, however – he disappeared from the town, and probably the state, shortly after, presumably with a good chunk of the investors’ $200,000 in his back pocket.

In his absence, the building became the city’s problem. During the oil boom, it had been an embarrassment; during the depression that followed, it was a liability. For a while, the building was occupied by two firms (the extra-narrow stairs that were added later took up around a quarter of the floor space); later it was boarded up.

For the rest of the 20th century the block was occupied by a string of barber shops and cafes, and on multiple occasions it was scheduled for demolition, but it somehow survived to be palmed off onto a local heritage society. However, the building remained controversial. In 1996, Ralph Harvey, of the Wichita County Historical Commission told a reporter from Texnews, “I’ve never understood why some people make such a big deal about it. But about half of the people around here want to save it. The other half would prefer it just to be hauled off.”

In the end, the first half won out, and the building was restored to its former, er, glory. Today it’s a local tourist attraction, with an antiques dealership on the ground floor and an artist’s studio upstairs.

The Newby-McMahon has often been used as a symbol of the gullibility of the boom era: of the eventual realisation that no, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, the petroleum boom won’t last, and this building is not, by any definition, a skyscraper. Yet Fodor’s 2008 guide to Texas, which prides itself on highlighting “the best this big and beautiful state has to offer”, names the Newby-McMahon building as a must-see attraction. If those investors had known, maybe they’d have hung on to it.

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Half brain away from home

There’s a soft mattress, a warm duvet, and a mint on your pillow. But despite the comfort of the hotel bed, you toss and turn on your first night away. Sound familiar? It could be because your left brain refuses to switch off properly when you’re in unfamiliar surroundings.

This so-called first night effect is well-known in sleep research. Because of this, when studying sleep patterns in the lab, researchers sometimes discard data from the first night to allow participants time to get used to their surroundings.

To understand this phenomenon, Masako Tamaki and colleagues at Brown University, Rhode Island, scanned the brains of 11 healthy volunteers while they slept on two occasions, a week apart. While asleep, they analysed their slow waves – low-frequency patterns of brain activity that reflect how deeply someone is sleeping.

Half asleep

The first time, they found that slow-wave activity was weaker in the brain’s left hemisphere than in the right, suggesting that the left side was more alert. Slow-wave activity was particularly weak in a pathway involved in spontaneous thought while we’re awake, called the default mode network.

A week later, slow-wave activity in the left hemisphere was higher, and was similar to that of the right. The team found that the greater the similarity in slow-wave activity in the two hemispheres, the faster a person fell asleep.

To test how much more alert a person is when they sleep somewhere new, the team then ran a similar experiment, but played sounds to participants through earphones while they slept. On the first occasion, their left hemispheres responded more strongly to the sounds than a week later.

Sleeping like a dolphin

Some birds and marine mammals are known to put only half of their brain to sleep at a time, so that they can stay vigilant. Tamaki thinks something similar might be going on in our brains when we’re in an unfamiliar environment.

The default mode network is involved in mind wandering and thinking about future events. It is spread across the brain, but it seems like only the part located in the left hemisphere may be acting as a “night watch”, monitoring conditions around us and alerting us to potential danger.

The reason for this is unclear, but it could be because the left hemisphere has stronger connectivity between its constituent regions, which might make it more effective as a night watch, Tamaki says.

If you want to increase your chances of sleeping well in strange surroundings, Tamaki suggests you simply accept your fate. “Try not to worry too much since worrying itself would wake up the brain,” she says. If you need to be well-rested for an event, think about arriving two nights early, she adds. “You can also bring something that makes you feel comfortable with a new place.”

Adrian Williams, a sleep medicine researcher at King’s College London, says the first night effect contrasts with the experience of his insomnia patients, who often sleep better away from home since they associate their own bedroom with not sleeping. But the results are convincing and intriguing, he says.

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