What’s the real deal with the new PE plastic Christmas trees? Are they eco-friendly?

Q: What’s the real deal with the new PE plastic Christmas trees? Are they eco-friendly?


A: The moment snow falls from the sky, the soundtrack in my mind starts adding bells and candycanes – Let It Snow, White Christmas, any corny carol, really.

Despite the consumption overdrive that kicks in right about now, I still love the snugly, warm glow of this holiday. And, yes, I always get a tree – but never a plastic one. Those have always been made with the Grinchiest of plastics, PVC. So what of new PE models that are PVC-free?

For one thing, keep in mind that many PE (polyethylene) trees, like the ones for sale at Home Depot, are actually blended with PVC. Sears is one of a few retailers selling some PVC-free trees made of polyethylene and steel. Now, PE itself is considered a safer plastic than PVC, since it’s not stabilized with lead and other heavy metals and isn’t quite as polluting to manufacture.

Of course, it’s still virgin-petroleum-based, but it’s a step in the right direction. Things get a little muddy, though, when retailers claim their PE trees are “100 per cent recyclable.”

Where, pray tell, are the facilities that recycle these things? Sears will tell you to ask your local municipality, which I did. Geoff Rathbone, the city’s recycling manager, said, “The only 100 per cent recyclable Christmas trees that I am aware of are the natural trees we recycle into mulch or compost.”

Turns out most artificial trees have metal or wooden components that aren’t compatible with plastic recycling. Not to mention problematic plastic additives like flame retardants. Bottom line, the city isn’t taking them, and when I called Sears to ask who does, they acknowledged the lack of recyclers and promised to remove recyclability claims from their website pronto.

All that considered, how do reusable PE trees hold up against natural trees? Last year a Montreal firm released a life-cycle analysis of artificial PVC and 100 per cent PE trees versus natural farmed trees. They factored in the peat moss, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation involved in growing conventional Christmas trees as well as the impact of trucking them to a store near you and the average 10-kilometre round trip you drive to buy a tree.

They even threw in the impact of buying a steel tree stand from China and watering your fir/balsam/pine.

They then compared that to an artificial tree made in China of steel branches and PVC needles stabilized with and without lead, as well as a 100 per cent PE version, both of them shipped to Vancouver, put on a train and trucked across the country.

The result? First, although PE trees are a little less environmentally damaging, it’s not so big a difference that PE options were crowned the great green solution.

You’d need to keep your tree for at least 20 years for it to beat a natural one, according to the study (and most keep ’em for under half that time). Can’t help but wonder whether artificial trees would have scored even worse if the study had factored in the notoriously dirty-coal-heavy emissions from Chinese factories, the labour rights woes haunting many Chinese imports and the fact that lead dust from PVC trees nine years and older can create “dangerous lead exposures” in the home, according to a U.S. government report.

(That last factor, by the way, is a good reason not to get plastic trees second-hand, but vintage aluminum trees would be totally groovy).

Natural trees put to the curb in Toronto have an even greater advantage, since the study assumed that tree mulch is burned (releasing pollutants), whereas in Toronto the compost and mulch is placed around plants and trees in local parks and given away to residents to reduce watering needs.

Farmed trees aren’t perfect, since they’re often sprayed, but you can get totally unsprayed trees grown just 150 kilometres away (at the Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf) or low-spray trees farmed 100 kilometres away in Alliston (available at the Brick Works garden centre). They even have condo-sized ones you can carry on their shuttle to the subway (car-free!).

Warning: potted live trees are ridiculously easy to kill, even for green thumbs, but you can take some of the guesswork out of it by renting one from giftofgreen.ca. Finally, if you want to leave real trees to their own devices and prefer a totally recycled and recyclable Canadian-made option, Cascades makes a cool one out of cardboard (boutique.cascades.com/us/en/catalog/christmas-trees/).

Got a question?

Send your green queries to ecoholic@nowtoronto.com

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