Sunday, December 3, 2017

Christmas Tree Showdown: Natural Trees vs Artificial Trees

I love real Christmas trees.  I love how they smell, how they look and I love the experience of going with my family to pick “the perfect tree”.  It becomes the center of our holiday celebrations, the place where we take family photos every year, around which we host holiday cocktail parties (or, truth be told these days, afternoon playdates)  and, of course, where Santa leaves his presents on Christmas morning.  

Last year, someone asked me if I thought that buying natural Christmas trees was damaging to the environment (cutting down so many trees)  - a valid question.  It also lead  me to thinking about artificial Christmas trees and whether or not they were better for the environment.  Here are my findings.

There are two basic types  of artificial Christmas trees.   The, usually less expensive, ones made of PVC plastic (vinyl) and the, newer and sometimes more expensive, ones which inject polyethylene (PE) plastic into molds made out of real tree needles.   

PVC trees
How to Identify them:
  • Box should specify it is made of ‘PVC”
  • #3 in the recycling triangle
  • Needles on the branches are flat

Are they toxic?
PVC, commonly called vinyl is toxic.   As this plastic is produced, it gives off some really bad, cancer causing chemicals called dioxins that cause a wide range of health effects including cancer, birth defects, diabetes, learning and developmental delays, endometriosis, and immune system abnormalities.  The dioxins are released into the environment during the manufacturing process and end up in the food that animals eat (especially in fatty tissue).   Humans then eat the animals (meat and dairy products) and the dioxins then end up accumulating in our fatty tissue.

In addition to the dioxins released during the manufacturing of PVC Christmas trees, bringing the tree into your home can also expose you and your family to some toxic chemicals.
  • PVC in trees are usually mixed with lead (especially when the item is manufactured overseas) which is a known neurotoxin very dangerous for children. 
  • PVC trees can release VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) into your home’s air.  These chemicals are not only common allergens, but they can cause developmental damage, damage to the liver and central nervous, respiratory, and reproductive systems. 
  • Artificial trees often have flame retardant chemicals added to them.   These easily migrate to your house dust, exposing your family to some quite toxic chemicals (to read more on flame retardants read our past posts)   

Are they Environmental Friendly?
  • As we explained above, PVC gives off horrible chemicals into the environment during the production process
  • Additionally, they don't biodegrade, so even if you use the tree for a decade, it will spend the next several decades sitting in a landfill.
What if you already have a PVC tree at home?
Well, it is not ideal but, there are some things you can do to minimize your chemical exposure if you do have an artificial tree made of PVC at home

 - When you first open a new artificial tree allow it to off gas (preferably outdoors but not in the sun which could contribute to deteriorating the plastic and more chemicals being released).
  • PVC is said to start deteriorating after 9 years - so it would be smart to get rid of your tree on or before the 9 year mark before the deterioration of the PVC begins and more chemicals are released into your home.
  • As always, keep dust to a minimum at home since many chemicals, like flame retardants, tend to migrate from the tree to the dust in your home (and you then either inhale it or ingest it)
  • Open windows everyday to let fresh air circulate indoors and allow VOCs  and other chemicals out (yes, I am aware that Christmas is during winter!). Alternately use an air filter if you have one and do not want to open windows (  for more information on air filters read out post “  WHY AN AIR PURIFIER MIGHT BE YOUR NEXT HOME PURCHASE AND HOW TO CHOOSE ONE’  )   
PE (polyethylene) plastic Trees
How to identify them
  • ‘PVC’ free written on the box
  • tree needles are *usually * (but not always) real looking, 3 dimensional
  • Unfortunately I only found 1 100% PE tree- the rest combine both PVC and PE 

Are They Toxic?
hmmmmm ….
  • On the positive side, if you are certain you have a 100% PVC free , PE tree,  it will not be stabilized with lead and other heavy metals and its production isn't as polluting to the environment.
  • On the negative side, most PE Christmas trees still have toxic flame retardants which will migrate to your home’s dust and into you AND most of these trees combine PVC and PE

Are they Environmental Friendly?
Many PE trees will claim to be 100% recyclable, however most recycling centers do not recycle this material, thus chances are that when you get rid of your PE tree it will be remain in the landfill for many many many years.

Various studies have found that, when compared to conventional natural Christmas trees, if you keep your 100% PE Christmas tree for 20 years it becomes more environmentally friendly than buying 20 natural Christmas trees over the same period of time.... but, like I mentioned 100% PVC free trees are hard to find.  

So, I still feel confident about buying my natural Christmas tree this weekend.  
Natural trees most probably will have been sprayed by pesticides - but we always make sure our dust is kept at a minimum, and windows are open everyday for a bit.

If you still prefer an artificial Christmas tree - allergies and budget can both be decision makers for many families,  make sure you choose a 100% PE tree (100% PVC free!!) or if not a tree with as high a percentage of PE vs PVC plastic and keep it for about 9 years!

Were can I purchase a PE Christmas tree?
As I mentioned, as of last year, 100% PVC free are - as far as I know- only available in some select Ikea stores (Read more below).  If you really prefer an artificial tree your best bet is to buy one that is made of a combination of PE and PVC with as high a percentage of PE that you can find.  Not all manufacturers will specify the percentage of PE to PVC plastic use; try to stick to those that do.  Also, choose a tree that does not have Christmas lights installed, since these lights just about always contain lead. 

* UPDATE:  in 2019 I cannot find  any 100% PU trees.  Ikea has a PP and PET tree in some locations.  These are the 'best' I found (please note these still contain flame retardant chemicals):

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