Artificial or Real Christmas Tree? What's better for you and the environment.
What toxic chemicals are in artificial Christmas trees and tips for how to stay safe
Artificial Christmas trees are becoming increasingly popular for families. They're seen as being convenient since they don't shed needles and can be reused year after year. Some even come with lights already on them! But is the convenience of artificial Christmas trees worth it? We break down the science and the pros and cons of artificial Christmas trees and farm grown real Christmas trees to help you have a healthy and sustainable Christmas!
Toxic Chemicals in Artificial Christmas Trees
The majority of artificial trees are made using a not-so-great plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is a major source of phthalates, one of the better known endocrine disrupting chemicals (they upset how hormones are made and distributed throughout our bodies). It's used to softens plastic (think soft pine needles), but has many known negative health impacts. They have been linked to asthma, neurodevelopment issues, cancers, obesity and type II diabetes, reproductive harm, and male fertility issues (1). In fact, phthalates are so harmful to health that many are banned from children's products. They can also easily leach or migrate out of plastics and end up in your household dust which you end of eating or breathing in and is a documented source of exposure.
On top of that, lead is often used to stabilize and make PVC easier to work with. Lead particles can be released from the artificial trees over time too. The exposure risk from artificial trees is smaller, but is definitely possible (2). Lead causes numerous health issues in children and adults, and there is no known safe level (3).
Lastly, artificial trees have flame retardants added to them to prevent fires. While we definitely don't want fires, chemical flame retardants can cause problems like cancers, decreased fertility in both men and women, impacts on the immune system, disruption to the regulation and creation of hormones, and lower IQ and hyperactivity in kids (4). Artificial trees are definitely not great for health, especially if there are children or even pets at home!
Sustainability of Artificial Christmas Trees
Since artificial trees are made of plastic, which is a petroleum based product, they are not particularly good for the environment. In addition to increasing demand for fossil fuels, the life-cycle of PVC is particularly dirty, which is why many environmental groups have called attention to just how bad for the environment PVC is. The manufacturing process, as well as the burning or landfilling of PVC (at the end of its life), releases a chemical group called dioxins (5). Exposure to dioxins can cause reproductive and fertility problems, liver damage, and even developmental problems in children. Moreover, most artificial trees are produced overseas and imported so there is also the transportation and packaging toll on the environment.
But what about the reusability of artificial Christmas trees? It turns out that the average family only reuses a tree for less than a decade (many times much less)! There are new tree styles (yes that is a thing!) or they get damaged and ragged over time. And then it ends up in the landfill (no real way to recycle artificial Christmas trees). That's a pretty hefty, long-term environmental burden.
What To Do If You Already Have an Artificial Christmas Tree
Don't panic! If you are an owner of an artificial Christmas tree made out of PVC, there are precautions you can take to reduce your family's exposure to lead and phthalates.
- When you first get your artificial tree, let it air out outside or in the garage before bringing it inside! You want the plastic-like smell to dissipate (these are VOCs and not good for indoor air!).
- Try using gloves when handling the tree and wash your hands before you snack and eat.
- Don't let children play with the tree. After you decorate the tree, have it remain just that, a decoration! And of course, wash your children's hands before they eat or snack.
- Vacuum with a HEPA filter regularly. This will ensure that any chemicals are sucked away!
What To Look For In an Artificial Christmas Tree
If you're currently tree-less and in the market for an artificial one, consider purchasing a tree made out of polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP). These plastics are safer than PVC, with less chance for lead contamination and less additive like phthalates. Please check with the manufacturer, as there are many trees that are a mix of PVC and these safer plastics. Try to get a tree with as high of a percentage or polyethylene or polypropylene plastic as possible. You can also look for artificial trees from a retailer that has a good chemicals policy, like Ikea that can give you some peace of mind over the materials and sustainability of your purchase.
What to Look for When Getting a Real Christmas Tree
Most people who purchase a real Christmas tree will be supporting a Christmas tree farm. Don't worry, they are not cut down from a pristine forest! Many tree farms are on hilly and rocky lands that don't support other crops. While they are growing, real Christmas trees do absorb carbon dioxide and they are biodegradable when Christmas is over. There are no scientific studies comparing the climate change impact and overall sustainability of artificial trees vs real Christmas trees. You'll find studies from representatives that represent manufacturers and tree farms supporting their own products, but there are many factors that these studies don't take into account.
One thing you can do is ask if the tree farm you are buying from sprays pesticides or is organic. Many conventional trees can be treated with pesticides like glyphosate (Roundup) and chlorpyrifos (6) that you don't want in your home and that aren't good for the environment or farmworkers. And when Christmas is over, look for local opportunities to recycle and compost your tree. Many times trees can be picked up or dropped off and then turned into wood chips or mulch to enrich soils.
Whatever you choose, an artificial or real Christmas tree, remember that it's one thing that you're bringing into your home this holiday season. Things like air travel, shopping, and the foods we eat all have a much bigger environmental and health impact. So whatever type of tree you choose, keep the bigger picture in mind!