Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees: Not an Obvious Answer

At first glance, artificial trees seem to make more sense as a long-term solution when considering cost, ease of use and the reusability factor.   Artificial trees actually have some eye appeal these days, as compared to the days when they were manufactured by a toilet brush company. Cutting down a living tree seems like a bad choice for the environment and it’s also a yearly investment during the most draining time of the year.

So how is a family to  make the right decision?  Is it a no-win deal when every aspect has been taken into consideration?  No, not really – because there is more to both sides of this story…

Artificial Trees: The Dark Side

  • Most artificial trees are made from PVC plastic.  Not only is PVC loaded with toxic chemicals, its production also results in emission of dioxin and ethylene dichloride.
  • Lead is often used as a stabilizer in PVC to make artificial trees more resistant to light and weathering.  Lead has been linked to kidney, liver, neurological and reproductive system damage.  Some Christmas trees are even required to carry warning labels because they shed lead-laden dust, exposing children to the toxic chemical.
  • Other non-renewable metals and plastics are used to make artificial trees.
  • Many artificial trees are treated with flame retardants, and yet they can still catch fire.

Real Trees: The Bright Side

  • While pine trees contain resins and other aromatic chemicals that can damage the respiratory tract, causing chronic respiratory disease and asthma, fir and spruce trees do not contain the same irritating chemicals.
  • They are a natural, renewable, reusable, recyclable source.
  • Live evergreen trees absorb carbon dioxide and other gases while they are growing, and emit fresh oxygen. Approximately 1 million acres of holiday trees growing in the United States supply about 18 million people a day with oxygen.
  • Organic, pesticide-free Christmas trees are becoming more widely available.
  • You can support U.S. made products and farmers by purchasing live Christmas trees, because they are grown in all 50 States.

As you can probably guess, my husband and I took the kids on our traditional trek to find the perfect live Christmas tree again this year.  We found a beautiful blue-green fir and we’re enjoying the fresh aroma constantly!  It’s also a wonderful opportunity to support a local business too :)

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  • http://thesoftlanding.com Alicia

    Hi threeundertwo,

    Thanks so much for sharing your choice with us! I have to agree – the thought of all those PVC trees laying in the landfill really gets me. Our city also does recycling, but we have to haul them in. It's still worth the effort and really provides another great Christmas tradition for our family.

    Alicia

  • danikacarter

    I agree. If you really want an artificial tree, be sure to buy it 2nd hand so you're keeping it out of the landfill (for now).

    Is there a way to find out if an artificial tree contains lead…or more importantly sheds lead dust?

  • http://thesoftlanding.com Alicia

    That's a great question! I know that some of the other volatile organic compounds (VOC) found in PVC off gas after a couple of months, but it's my understanding the lead is a constant shedding problem throughout the life cycle of the product.

    The Smart Mama explained to me once that lead in PVC is unstable, always trying to escape its bounds. We may have to ask her expert opinion that!

    Alicia

  • danikacarter

    Yes, let's ask her. If anyone would know it's her. I just bought a 2nd-hand tree and want it out of my house if it has lead. In the meantime, maybe I should call the company.

  • danikacarter

    When I lived in CA the local Boy Scouts would pick up your tree for a small fee & recycle it. It was one of their annual fundraisers, and it was such a great service.

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  • threeundertwo

    This is the decision we've come to as a family as well. I think a big factor for me is the thought that all those trees are going to end up in landfills forever. People will move, upgrade, and have all kinds of reasons to throw them out. So while I do envy people who put an artificial tree up weeks before I get mine, I'll never regret the smell and loveliness of our real tree. And I love that our city collects them at the curb and recycles them to mulch.

  • lisag3

    I grew up with an artificial tree. I didn't mind it. I didn't know any better. I liked that our tree was up well before other families trees. When I was out on my own, I bought a real cut tree and loved the smell of it! I loved everything about it, the smell, the touch, the uneven shape but I didn't like that it was 'cut down' for me to enjoy for a very short time.

    Now that we have a little boy (2 yrs old this Christmas) We decided to buy a potted tree that we will be able to use for a number of years. We have it on the back deck with lights on it until about 12 days before Christmas (so we can enjoy it from the back windows,) then we move it into the garage to 'warm up' for a couple of days and then we move it indoors and decorate and enjoy it! We will re-pot the tree every couple of years and when the tree is too big to move indoors, we will simply plant it in our yard or pass it on to a neighbour. Our hope is that we are sharing our love and respect of nature with our son. Teaching him that we don't need to consume to enjoy! Merry Christmas.

  • http://thesoftlanding.com Alicia

    I just heard back from Jennifer Taggart (The Smart Mama) and here's what she had to say:

    “If the tree is vinyl [PVC] it probably has lead, and yes – lead comes off for a long period of time. The more the plastic breaks down, the more lead released. But, if it you have an artificial tree that is more vintage – 1950s – it may not be vinyl.”

    Sounds like buying 2nd hand may not be a good idea either when trying to avoid lead exposure.

    Alicia

  • danikacarter

    Thanks Alicia. I'm about 1/2 done w/ the lights and I'm not touching it until I know more. I know it's Martha Stewart, so I'm going to call and ask about the PVC. Is there any way to measure the lead content/what's being released?

  • http://thesoftlanding.com Alicia

    You're welcome!

    As for testing the amount of lead – I know Jennifer (or anyone with an XRF tester) could at tell you how much lead is currently on the surface of the tree. This testing is a service that experts charge for though, so I'm not sure it would be worth your while. Feel free to contact Jennifer to get her take on it at jennifer@thesmartmama.com

    Alicia

    ________________________________

  • http://thesoftlanding.com Alicia

    Hi threeundertwo,

    Thanks so much for sharing your choice with us! I have to agree – the thought of all those PVC trees laying in the landfill really gets me. Our city also does recycling, but we have to haul them in. It's still worth the effort and really provides another great Christmas tradition for our family.

    Alicia

  • danikacarter

    I agree. If you really want an artificial tree, be sure to buy it 2nd hand so you're keeping it out of the landfill (for now).

    Is there a way to find out if an artificial tree contains lead…or more importantly sheds lead dust?

  • http://thesoftlanding.com Alicia

    That's a great question! I know that some of the other volatile organic compounds (VOC) found in PVC off gas after a couple of months, but it's my understanding the lead is a constant shedding problem throughout the life cycle of the product.

    The Smart Mama explained to me once that lead in PVC is unstable, always trying to escape its bounds. We may have to ask her expert opinion that!

    Alicia

  • danikacarter

    Yes, let's ask her. If anyone would know it's her. I just bought a 2nd-hand tree and want it out of my house if it has lead. In the meantime, maybe I should call the company.

  • danikacarter

    When I lived in CA the local Boy Scouts would pick up your tree for a small fee & recycle it. It was one of their annual fundraisers, and it was such a great service.

  • threeundertwo

    This is the decision we've come to as a family as well. I think a big factor for me is the thought that all those trees are going to end up in landfills forever. People will move, upgrade, and have all kinds of reasons to throw them out. So while I do envy people who put an artificial tree up weeks before I get mine, I'll never regret the smell and loveliness of our real tree. And I love that our city collects them at the curb and recycles them to mulch.

  • lisag3

    I grew up with an artificial tree. I didn't mind it. I didn't know any better. I liked that our tree was up well before other families trees. When I was out on my own, I bought a real cut tree and loved the smell of it! I loved everything about it, the smell, the touch, the uneven shape but I didn't like that it was 'cut down' for me to enjoy for a very short time.

    Now that we have a little boy (2 yrs old this Christmas) We decided to buy a potted tree that we will be able to use for a number of years. We have it on the back deck with lights on it until about 12 days before Christmas (so we can enjoy it from the back windows,) then we move it into the garage to 'warm up' for a couple of days and then we move it indoors and decorate and enjoy it! We will re-pot the tree every couple of years and when the tree is too big to move indoors, we will simply plant it in our yard or pass it on to a neighbour. Our hope is that we are sharing our love and respect of nature with our son. Teaching him that we don't need to consume to enjoy! Merry Christmas.

  • http://thesoftlanding.com Alicia

    I just heard back from Jennifer Taggart (The Smart Mama) and here's what she had to say:

    “If the tree is vinyl [PVC] it probably has lead, and yes – lead comes off for a long period of time. The more the plastic breaks down, the more lead released. But, if it you have an artificial tree that is more vintage – 1950s – it may not be vinyl.”

    Sounds like buying 2nd hand may not be a good idea either when trying to avoid lead exposure.

    Alicia

  • danikacarter

    Thanks Alicia. I'm about 1/2 done w/ the lights and I'm not touching it until I know more. I know it's Martha Stewart, so I'm going to call and ask about the PVC. Is there any way to measure the lead content/what's being released?

  • http://thesoftlanding.com Alicia

    You're welcome!

    As for testing the amount of lead – I know Jennifer (or anyone with an XRF tester) could at tell you how much lead is currently on the surface of the tree. This testing is a service that experts charge for though, so I'm not sure it would be worth your while. Feel free to contact Jennifer to get her take on it at jennifer@thesmartmama.com

    Alicia

    ________________________________

  • Melissa Diglio Healy

    you can also rent potted trees

  • Artificial Christmas Trees

    Wow I have never heard of this before, what an interesting spiritual story. It’s truly an inspirational and interesting story.

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  • No

    We had a live tree growing up. It got planeted in our yard. Quite nice.

  • Kathyjcarlson

    The potted Christmas tree idea is awesome!

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