Choosing a Christmas tree with fewer chemicals
We buy around 8 million real Christmas trees in the UK each year. They’re thought to have been introduced to the UK by Prince Albert in 1840, but it was Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III who first introduced a Christmas tree at Windsor in 1800.
But what’s the right choice of tree for you? Are there any health benefits from choosing a real tree rather than an artificial one? It’s worth considering how chemicals are used in the production of both real and artificial trees before making your choice.
Organic Christmas trees
Organic Christmas trees are grown without using any pesticides and herbicides. They take longer to grow which can make them more expensive, but they are grown without any chemicals to keep weeds and pests at bay. So when you bring an organic Christmas tree into your home you will be reducing your exposure to herbicides and pesticides.
One of the most commonly used herbicides in Christmas tree farming is glyphosate, used to control the weeds that can damage growth and improve quality of the foliage. Glyphosate is classified by the WHO as “probably carcinogenic” to humans. Opinion is divided about the health effects of exposure to glyphosate, but it has been linked with increased risk of some types of cancer.
If organic isn’t an option, and where possible, source your tree locally and look for FSC certified trees grown responsibly with minimal pesticide use. When you take your tree home, leave it outside for as long as possible before bringing it indoors to decorate it – this will allow any pesticides or herbicides used during the growing process, and sprayed prior to tree harvesting more time to release.
Plastic Christmas trees
Most artificial trees are made using plastics derived from petroleum, and some metal. The most commonly used plastics are PVC and polyethylene (PE) used for their flame retardancy because they burn at high temperatures, making plastic Christmas trees safer. PVC is often stabilised using phthalates widely thought to have endocrine disrupting properties.
Chemicals used in the manufacturing process of all plastic items, including Christmas trees, are released slowly into ambient air in a process known as offgassing; this happens when plastics and other materials release chemical substances into indoor air which can then be inhaled at low levels. This offgassing can be intensified in warm rooms when tree lights are attached to trees, warming the plastic up. To reduce this effect, ventilate your room whenever possible and stand the tree in a cooler spot. If you are buying a new Christmas tree, remove it from packaging and stand it outside or in a well-ventilated room or garage for as long as possible before using.
Grow your own Christmas tree
It’s very easy to grow your own Christmas tree without using any chemicals. Christmas trees in pots are widely available and can make a nice long term project if you continue growing it on outside when the festive season is over, re-potting it each year, and bringing it back inside each Christmas. Alternatively, plant your tree outside in your garden and leave it there to flourish for years to come, decorating it with exterior lights.
Carbon footprint of Christmas tress
Christmas trees naturally absorb CO2 and release oxygen, and also provide a habitat for wildlife whilst growing. According to the Carbon Trust a tree without roots generates about 16kg of carbon dioxide when disposed of into landfill, but this drops down significantly if re-planted, chipped, or burned, reducing the carbon footprint by more than 4 times to 3.5kg of CO2.
An artificial Christmas tree of the same size made from plastic has a higher carbon footprint of about 40kg of CO2, over 10 times greater than a real tree – so it would take 10 years for an artificial tree to equal the carbon footprint of a real tree.