The Lions Club Christmas Tree stand in Rochester is deserted. Most of the trees are gone, too. But Martin Doyle still needs one.
A volunteer shows him a Douglas fir, but it does not have a pointy top. Doyle shrugs at it.
"How long until the needles fall off?" he asks.
"These are good for needles holding on," the volunteer tells him.
Doyle says his new girlfriend wants a real tree. He had an artificial tree when he was married. He says that was because his ex-wife did not like to clean up pine needles.
"Now, we're a little more tolerant and want the whole authentic Christmas," he says.
Nearly everyone MPR spoke with chose a real or artificial tree because of convenience or tradition.
But that is not true for Sue Berndt, who is shopping for ornaments. She uses an artificial tree, "because I want to save the trees.
"We've had the artificial tree for 15 years or more," Berndt explains. "I just had a tough time putting up the tree and destroying the tree afterwards."
Fake trees are often made of polyvinyl chloride, which is a particularly nasty kind of plastic. Some also have lead in them. It's used to soften that kind of plastic.Jennifer Hattam, Sierra Club
You hear the slogan, "save a tree" a lot. But University of Minnesota Forestry Extension Specialist Carl Vogt says if you are going to have a Christmas tree, a cut one actually has a smaller carbon footprint than a artificial tree.
He says one acre of Christmas trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people.
"Most tree producers -- by and large -- they try to keep their lands fully stocked. In other words, they try to have trees of all ages. So while those trees are growing they are producing oxygen. When they're harvested, obviously they're not," Vogt says.
Vogt adds that cut trees can be mulched. Artificial trees are typically made of metal and plastic.
"I would say probably 99 percent of them are petroleum-based, nonrenewable. You have it for five or six years and then it gets tossed. There is no recycling," Vogt says.
Most artificial trees are also made in Asia, and shipped to wholesalers in the U.S. They are then shipped again to retailers across the country.
Thomas Harman, the founder of Balsam Hill, a premium artificial tree manufacturer, says his trees are shipped directly to customers. He acknowledges fake trees have a long way to travel, but he says cut trees are not entirely clean either.
"For most of the United States' population, the trees are coming from Oregon, North Carolina or Quebec," Harman says. "There's a lot of diesel fuel that's involved in shipping trees from Quebec to New York City."
Harman also points out that tree farmers use pesticides on their trees, which damage the environment. Forty pesticides are registered for use on Christmas trees, and many of them are banned in residential areas. Harman says more trees are harvested than sold each year.
His artificial trees have a 10-year guarantee. He expects people will use them for even longer.
Reuse is often pointed to as a good reason to buy a plastic tree, but some researchers say that does not make ecological sense. Reusing something non-renewable does not end up helping the environment.
So in the midst of this finger-pointing, which type of tree gets the nod from the Sierra Club, an environmental group? Jennifer Hattan, lifestyles editor at Sierra Magazine, says it favors cut trees.
"Fake trees are often made of polyvinyl chloride, which is a particularly nasty kind of plastic," Hattam says. "Some also have lead in them -- it's used to soften that kind of plastic. A lot of these trees are made in other countries where the standards might not to be to our liking. So even though cut trees are being taken from the land, they are more of a farmed product than taken from an old growth forest." But the tree itself is only part of the story. Electricity-burning lights hang on trees. Xcel Energy reports that residential electricity usage shoots up every holiday season.
The best solution? Sierra Club suggests hanging your lights on a potted evergreen and hanging fewer of them.