Fake Christmas Trees, Automobile Air, and Recycling Computers

With the holiday season just around the corner, can you tell me if it’s environmentally better to purchase a fake Christmas tree or a real one?

R.M. Brandt
Nutley, NJ

There’s no clear answer to which is better for the environment. Synthetic, “fake” trees are made with petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Deborah Gangloff, executive vice president of the American Forestry Association, says that although synthetic trees can be reused, the petroleum used in their production is environmentally negative. Live trees, she says, may be natural, but their “harvesting” has staggering resource costs.

Today, live Christmas trees are farmed like any other agricultural crop and harvested about every eight years. Rarely are they taken from virgin forests, causing Gangloff to conclude that, despite the resources expended to grow, transport and maintain them, harvested trees are the best option.

Depending on your tree choice, there are some after-season options. While an artificial tree will be returned to its box and stored in the basement for another year, a live tree, purchased with its roots intact, can be replanted in your yard, adding a lifetime holiday ornament. (It is important to make sure that the tree species is compatible with the climate in which you live.) You can also contact your city’s public works department to see if it offers a Christmas tree recycling day where trees are processed into mulch for participants to take home or be donated to city parks.


American Forestry Association
1516 P Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20005
Tel: (202) 667-3300

I’ve been told that automobile air conditioners are bad for the environment. Exactly why and what part of the air conditioner is bad?

Susan Vogel
Somerville, NJ

The harmful effects of automobile air conditioners can be directly attributed to the main cooling ingredient, R-12. In December 1995, the U.S. banned the manufacturing of this environmentally dangerous and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbon, but existing stockpiles of the gas could keep its toxic legacy around for years.

HFC134A, also known as teterafluoroethane, has replaced R-12 as the main cooling ingredient. According to John Passacantando, director of Ozone Action, HFC134A does not contribute to ozone depletion but is a global warming gas. Although both coolants are harmful to the environment, Lars Wilcut of the Stratospheric Ozone Information Center suggests the use of the less-harmful HFC134A.

Owners of pre-1994 automobiles can modify their car air conditioners to use HFC134A, but they will have to be prepared to spend some money. According to Pat Malloy of AC Specialties in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the price for switching from an R-12 system to HFC134A starts at $250. The older the car, the more expensive the replacement will be. Of course, the cheapest and easiest way to cool your car is to open your windows and let in the fresh air.


Ozone Action
1621 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
Tel: (202) 265-6738

I work for a computer retail store and we often have broken equipment that is not worth fixing. Rather than toss this equipment into the dumpster, we would like to find out if there is anywhere to send it to be recycled.

Kenneth Rapp
Toms River, NJ

According to Nikki and David Goldbeck’s excellent resource Choose to Reuse, some 10 million computers are discarded each year, and that could mean 150 million of the big, bulky boxes in landfills by the year 2005. And a lot of those machines were worth saving! The first thing to check is if your old computer can be upgraded; often the substitution of a simple memory chip can make a slow-poke speed up considerably. And RAM memory—provided there are sufficient expansion slots—is getting cheaper all the time. If an upgrade won’t work, there are certainly alternatives to landfills. Goodwill and Salvation Army stores, for instance, will take working older equipment for resale. “Free Computer” ads can be posted at schools and workplaces. And brokers like American Computer Exchange in Georgia will take your hardware for trade on a newer model.


American Computer Exchange
Northside Tower
6065 Roswell Road
Suite 535
Atlanta, GA 30328
Tel: (404) 250-0050