Written by Elizabeth Monaghan
My family is preparing to move from New York City to New Orleans, where my husband, an architect, has nearly completed building us a non-toxic house. The movers are en route with our possessions, and my sons and I will fly there the week before Christmas to begin settling into our new home.
Even the simplest Christmas plans are daunting under these circumstances, but I know this holiday will be special. William, 2 ½, will anticipate Santa Claus, and Fergus, 1, will gleefully tear into his presents. I’m determined to have a beautiful tree, even if it’s minimally adorned. We’ll probably sit on the floor in front of it, eating take-out jambalaya on Christmas Eve.
I grew up decorating an artificial Christmas tree because my siblings and I suffered from asthma and pine allergies. As an adult, real trees stopped giving me trouble, so I started buying one each year from the farmers who set up their fragrant stands along New York’s avenues. Only in the last year or two did I seriously consider the environmental and health consequences of my decision.
Proponents of artificial trees cite cost, convenience, and the ability to use the same tree year after year, but unfortunately, artificial trees are almost always made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is a plastic I won’t allow in my home. In addition to being non-biodegradable and non-recyclable, PVC contains phthalates, which Congress banned from children’s toys. PVC often contains lead and other metals as stabilizers. These additives can leach out, evaporate into the air, or be ingested, posing specific dangers to pregnant women, infants, and children, whose bodies are rapidly developing.
PVC is dangerous throughout its life cycle. Just days ago, a train derailment in New Jersey caused the release of vinyl chloride gas into the air, sickening dozens of residents. When PVC is manufactured or burned, numerous dioxins are formed and released; dioxins are known to cause cancer and harm the immune and reproductive systems. Read more about PVC at the Center for Health, Environment & Justice. Finally, as Earth911 points out, most artificial trees sold in the US are manufactured in China, adding to their environmental footprint.
But does the idea of cutting down a live tree make you feel guilty? It shouldn’t. Christmas tree growers use sustainable techniques to ensure a healthy supply of trees every year, and all those trees are absorbing CO2 as they grow.
After Christmas, many communities collect trees and mulch them for landscaping or chip them for trails and playgrounds. Discarded trees can also be used to slow beachfront erosion. Reusing and recycling are great alternatives to hauling a tree to the landfill, where it decomposes slowly.
Be aware, though, that tree farms may use pesticides, and that the trees may have traveled hundreds of miles (or more) to reach you. Ask around to find out how and where the trees are grown. I will be searching for a local tree that was farmed using Integrated Pest Management, an approach that relies on common sense and seeks the least hazardous approach to the environment and human health.
Wouldn’t it be fun to decorate a live tree that could be replanted after the holidays? I’m not sure it fits the tropical scheme of our landscaping, but if we ever find ourselves back north, maybe we’ll give it a try!