The Great Christmas Tree Debate

Miniature red car and Christmas tree
Photo by Kristina Paukshtite from Pexels

Real, or artificial? The great Christmas tree debate, each side with pros and cons. I have never been able to pick a side in this annual conundrum. That is until I found a great zero-waste solution.

Artificial Christmas tree
Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

Artificial Trees

I grew up with an artificial tree, and that is what we have now. We bought it after buying our home but before starting our plastic-free journey, and before I knew about the potential toxins in artificial Christmas trees. Also, I personally always believed that a fake tree was better since it is reusable. I thought that cutting down a tree was killing it. And I thought that killing a tree just to have it in my home for one holiday seemed selfish and antinature.

Most artificial Christmas trees are made of metals and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, which can be a potential source of hazardous lead. “The potential for lead poisoning is great enough that fake trees made in China are required by California Prop 65 to have a warning label,” according to the National Christmas Tree Association.1 Prop 65, or Proposition 65, provides warnings about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

PVC also releases gases known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates that can irritate the eyes, nose, and lungs. I’ve seen recommendations to shop for a PVC-free tree made from polyethylene which is considered safer and not known to leach harmful chemicals. But this is not easy to find. I did discover that IKEA’s Christmas trees are PVC and BPA free. Even if you find one,  it’s still a plastic tree.

From what I’ve read, it seems that most off-gassing may occur when the tree is new, so unpack it and leave it outside to off-gas for a while before bringing it into your home. According to the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), if you purchase an artificial tree, use it for at least six to nine years before replacing it.2 

That Smell

Among the arguments I’ve heard for real trees, one of the most common is the smell. Those of us with an artificial tree are relegated to scented pine candles, air fresheners, or scented ornament sticks. However, all of those items that are artificially scented likely contain phthalates and other chemicals that are not safe to breathe. Don’t feel bad for not knowing that, I used to use them too! But please safely dispose of them now. Look for a soy or beeswax candle as they are usually much safer. If you have an artificial tree and really want to have that smell in your home, perhaps you can find a few sprigs of pine to put in a vase.

Pine tree
Photo by Loren Cutler on Unsplash

Real Trees

According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), approximately 25-30 million trees sold in the U.S. every year. There are close to 350 million trees growing on Christmas Tree farms just in the U.S.3 Tree farms emit oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, and filter toxins from our air. The NCTA indicates that for every real Christmas tree harvested, 1 to 3 seedlings are planted the following spring. “Christmas tree farms stabilize the soil, protect water supplies and support complex eco-systems.”4

Many Christmas tree farms across the world may be monoculture farms, meaning they only grow a single crop which does not encourage biodiversity and sometimes requires extra pesticides to protect the plants. However, “very few Christmas trees are removed from federal forests, and those that are, are strictly regulated by the U.S. Forest Service.”5

The Great Debate

According to a significant study conducted in 2010, the environmental friendliness of a real or artificial Christmas tree depends upon how a family uses it. “The study found that the environmental impacts of one artificial tree used for more than eight Christmases is environmentally friendlier than purchasing eight or more real cut trees over eight years.”6 ACTA encourages consumers to consider buying a locally grown tree if possible to reduce emissions from traveling to buy it.

Pine tree
Photo by Loren Cutler on Unsplash

Disposal of Either Type

Real Christmas trees biodegrade or can be recycled. “Real trees are more sustainable because they are biodegradable, unlike plastic trees which fill landfills and cause more harm than good to the environment.”7 The Arbor Day Foundation also offered multiple ways to recycle a real Christmas tree. “There are more than 4,000 local Christmas Tree recycling programs throughout the United States,” according to the NCTA.8

If you plan to replace an artificial tree, donate it before you dispose of it in a landfill. You can donate it to a thrift store, a neighbor, a church, maybe a homeless shelter. Check with local non-profits as even your local zoo or school may want one. You could also put it online for free through Freecycle, Nextdoor, or Facebook.

4 foot potted Christmas tree
Image from www.rent-a-christmas.com/

The Best Solution: Zero Waste

This year I discovered Christmas Tree rental! This may be the best of both worlds and is a zero-waste option. Tree rental companies deliver the tree to your home or office in a pot and you can decorate it. When the holiday season is over, the rental company will pick it up. This means you can have a real tree annually without cutting one down, and there’s no storage of a plastic tree year-to-year. While this is not a new solution, it is one that is growing.

One Christmas Tree nursery in California notes that their renting program “focuses on zero waste and employs a minimal footprint operation through efficiency and conservation.”9 You’ll also get that smell of fresh pine, the tree will be replanted, the trees provide habitats for wildlife in between the holiday seasons, and they remove carbon dioxide and toxins both from your home and the atmosphere.

This option isn’t available everywhere yet, but be sure to check your state or region. The pricing that I found with various companies ranged from $35-$75, and I saw some as high as $155. But the cost of cutting down a tree is about the same – so why kill a tree?

Let me know if you’ve tried Christmas tree rental and how your experience went. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe. I wish you and your family a very Happy Holidays!

French bulldog with Christmas lights and letter to Santa
Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Tiny House Family’s Christmas Tree Solution,” Tiny House Talk, December 23, 2018.

Article, “8 Sustainable Ways to Recycle your Christmas Tree,” Arbor Day Foundation, December 26, 2019.

Guide, “How to recycle: Real Christmas Trees have a second life,” National Christmas Tree Association, accessed December 21, 2020.

Footnotes:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 2

Last updated on September 11, 2021.

Yellow warning sign with skull and crossbones
Image by OpenIcons from Pixabay

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced polystyrene, which we commonly refer to as Styrofoam, food packaging. This type of plastic is terrible for the environment and human health. Today, we’ll look at the toxicity of polystyrene in depth.

After watching friends and coworkers repeatedly reheat their take-out and leftovers in polystyrene, I decided to write a post about it. I had known polystyrene was potentially toxic for a long time, but I had no idea of the breadth of the problem.

Chemicals Leach from Containers into Food

Polystyrene leaches styrene and benzene, chemicals that have known toxic properties, into food. In testing, one scientific journal independently tested and found that polystyrene leaches more toxins when in contact with high-temperature contents and into foods with higher fat content.1 What does this mean? It means that if you buy hot food, fatty food, soup, or coffee and it is packaged in polystyrene, some of the chemicals from the container leach into your food. Over time, these chemicals can cause severe health problems.

“Styrene is likely to leach when it comes in contact with fatty foods, hot beverages, and especially alcohol. When thinking about the kinds of foods that typically end up in Styrofoam containers (fatty foods) and cups (hot coffee), it seems as though the exact kinds of items Styrofoam contains are exactly the kind of items it should never touch.” -The Green Dining Alliance2

Melted polystyrene spots from hot food in a polystyrene container.
I recently went to a BBQ restaurant in Dayton, TN. They serve most of their food in polystyrene containers. My fried okra side melted the polystyrene and those chemicals certainly leached into my food. I didn’t eat the okra, I dumped it out so that I could photograph the container. I likely will never dine at that place again. It really concerns me that people eat food out of these types of containers every day! Photo by me
Melted polystyrene spots from hot food in a polystyrene container.
Photo by me

Known Toxicity

When I searched “polystyrene human health” I got more than 13 million results. After reading many articles, I realized that all organizations and even the government, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), know that polystyrene is harmful to human health as well as land and marine environments. Furthermore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits the migration of styrene from packaging into food!

Study after study shows that chemicals from polystyrene leach into foods and beverages, especially with higher temperatures and food with higher fat content. And study after study shows that styrene is dangerous to human health. In fact, most agencies caution against the use of polystyrene because of the known health hazards, including:

        • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
        • The World Health Organization (WHO)
        • The International Agency for Research on Cancer
        • National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences
        • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)
        • National Research Council (NRC)
        • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
        • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
        • The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR), Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Take-out in polystyrene containers
Image by albedo20 on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A Known Carcinogen

Styrene exposure increases the risk of leukemia and lymphoma and is a neurotoxin. This alone is enough reason to avoid polystyrene containers. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) reclassified styrene as a probable carcinogen.3 While the EPA does not classify it as a carcinogen, it noted that animal cancer studies provided some evidence for carcinogenicity.4 Several of the organizations mentioned above, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Department of Health and Human Services consider it to be carcinogenic.

Hormone Disruption

There are countless studies that show certain types of plastics contain known hormone disruptors. Those chemicals often mimic estrogen and they seep into food and beverages (including breastmilk). In 2014, Environmental Health tested 11 samples of polystyrene and consistently found estrogen seepage after exposure to intense steam or ultraviolet rays5. Since polystyrene is a type of plastic, this is just one more reason to avoid polystyrene containers.

It is terrifying that many schools use foam trays for cafeteria food. Hormone disruption in young children prevents them from developing normally, can affect their ability to reproduce as adults, and can set them up to be prone to other diseases.

Polystyrene food tray
Image by Laura Taylor on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Other Health Hazards

Styrene exposure can come from other sources, such as photocopier toner, automobile exhaust, and plastics manufacturing. Exposure can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, mucous membranes, the upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal irritation. Chronic exposure can cause neurological problems such as depression, headaches, fatigue, weakness, hearing loss, and disrupted kidney function.6

Additional Unknown Chemicals

There are many chemicals and ingredients that are not tested for and not regulated by the EPA and FDA. While this may seem surprising, the standard operating procedure in the United States is to allow the chemical to be used until a known hazard is not only discovered, but proven. Essentially, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.

Hefty polystyrene container
Hefty polystyrene container, photo by me

Exposure through Manufacturing

Anyone who lives near or works in polystyrene manufacturing sites are at risk of even greater health problems due to respiratory exposure. The Clean Water Action organization noted that “occupational exposure to Styrene increases [the] risk of lymphoma, leukemia, lung tumors, pancreatic cancer, urinary bladder cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer. High rates of neurotoxicological effects have been reported in workers,” as well as decreased sperm counts.”7 These plants also emit a toxic and volatile gas called pentane, often used as a blowing agent in the production of polystyrene. 

“Over fifty chemical byproducts are released during the manufacturing of polystyrene, contaminating the air, water and communities that live near these facilities.” Children’s Environmental Health Network

What You Can Do

Polystyrene is toxic to human health. When ordering take-out, ask the restaurant if they use “Styrofoam” or polystyrene containers, and if they do, you can either ask if they have an alternative type of container or decide to order from somewhere else. When bringing leftovers home from a restaurant, keep a glass or metal container in your car specifically for such occasions. Bring your own reusable coffee mug to coffee shops. As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, please try to avoid eating food in polystyrene, and definitely stop reheating your food in polystyrene containers in the microwave

Last, polystyrene is the most common type of #6 plastic and is largely not recyclable because of food contamination. In Part 3, I will cover the problems with recycling and the environmental damage polystyrene causes. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

“Styrene,” Report on Carcinogens, 14th Edition, National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services.

Report, “What’s the Package? Unveiling the Toxic Secrets of Food and Beverage Packaging,” Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, August 2016.

Article, “Leaching of styrene and other aromatic compounds in drinking water from PS bottles,” by Maqbool Ahmad and Ahmad S. Bajahlan, Journal of Environmental Sciences, 19 (2007), p. 421–426, accessed September 12, 2021.

Footnotes:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 1

Last updated June 20, 2021.

Black Styrofoam take out container
Photo from www.webstaurantstore.com

Take-out has definitely increased in popularity since the onset of COVID-19 and often take-out and leftovers are transported and served in what we colloquially refer to as Styrofoam containers. These containers present several problems because they largely cannot be recycled or composted. These items clutter up landfills, litter rivers, and pollute oceans. They are extremely dangerous to marine life because the containers break down into small pieces that many species ingest. Worst of all, these containers leach toxins into our food, and those toxins are poisonous to humans.

This is the first of a five-part series to explain the dangers of putting food into said containers. I want to acknowledge that I am neither a physician nor a scientist. I am, however, a concerned environmentalist, mother, and friend, and as such I must inform you that I feel it is imperative to stop eating and reheating food in Styrofoam/polystyrene containers immediately.

Styrofoam vs. Polystyrene

Foam take-out containers are actually made of polystyrene, which is how I’ll refer to them in this post. Though it has become a genericization, Styrofoam is a trademarked brand of closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS), commonly called “Blue Board” and used in building materials and insulation. This material is light blue in color and is owned and manufactured by The Dow Chemical Company. The kind used for take-out and food packaging is actually Expanded Polystyrene, or EPS. Both types have insulating and cushioning properties.

“Polystyrene is the name for a whole family of plastics … but the foam forms have [a] disproportional environmental impact.” -Joseph A. Davis, Society of Environmental Journalists

Styrofoam food container
Styrofoam food container. Image by Aislan Máximo “Max” on Pixabay

What is Polystyrene?

Polystyrene is a chemically produced plastic that can be a hard or foam plastic. The foam is created by expanding the styrene (plastic), a petroleum by-product, which is accomplished by blowing various gases into it. Polystyrene is made from ethylene and benzene, both hydrocarbons derived from petroleum and natural gas, also known as petrochemicals. So those fast-food containers are made from fossils fuels and mixed with chemicals. That doesn’t sound too appetizing, does it?

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), promoters of all plastic despite the human health and environmental problems it causes, infers that polystyrene is natural when it is far from it: “Polystyrene is made by stringing together, or polymerizing, styrene, a building-block chemical used in the manufacture of many products. Styrene also occurs naturally in foods such as strawberries, cinnamon, coffee and beef.”1 They are referring to the minuscule amounts in those natural items, which are not mixed with additional additives and chemicals that are potentially dangerous. I find it appalling that the ACC makes such a comparison.

Added Chemicals

Many sources indicate that polystyrene is made up of mostly air, but that’s not completely accurate. The plastic is expanded into foam by creating air pockets between the polymers, but a gas or a chemical is used in expanding it. The industry formerly used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as a blowing agent, and as you may know, CFCs deplete the planet’s protective ozone layer. Most CFCs have been removed worldwide following bans in the late 1980s.2

Today, there are two principal methods of production for polystyrene in the United States, according to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The primary method uses ethylbenzene; the second is created through a series of chemical reactions using ethylbenzene, propylene, propylene oxide, and α-methyl phenyl carbinol.3

Chicken, rice, and vegetables in polystyrene container
Image by Vitalis Arnoldus from Pixabay

Use of Polystyrene Containers

Polystyrene is used for packaging materials, insulation, fiberglass, automobile parts, plastic pipes, carpet backing, boat hulls, and food packaging and containers. There are two types of EPS food containers. The rigid form is used for clear food containers, plates, bowls, beverage cups and lids, utensils, and straws. The foam form is used to make plates, insulated beverage cups, soup bowls, ice cream cups, clamshell food containers, meat trays, and cafeteria trays. These containers are everywhere: restaurants, fast-food restaurants, cafeterias, buffets, coffee shops, ice cream shops, movie theaters, grocery stores, supermarkets, etc.

Keebler ice cream cones, packed in #6 polystyrene packaging.
Keebler ice cream cones, packed in #6 polystyrene packaging. Photos by me

Keebler ice cream cones, packed in #6 polystyrene packaging.

Inexpensive but Harmful

This material is inexpensive to manufacture. It is also cheap to ship because polystyrene is so light, but it also makes it easy for the pieces to take to flight, littering our roads, rivers, and ocean. The ACC really promotes the use of material despite environmental and human health hazards: “Polystyrene foodservice packaging typically insulates better, keeps food fresher longer and costs less than alternatives.”4 But the true cost is devastating when considering the pollution, human health effects, and harm to wildlife.

“When considering the cleanup costs, carbon emissions, environmental costs, and potential health effects, the hidden cost of Styrofoam comes out to $7 billion, annually.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis

Looking Forward

The world produces more than 14 million US tons of polystyrene each year according to earthday.org and the Green Dining Alliance. Most of that ends up in the trash or worse, our land, rivers, and ocean. Polystyrene is the most common type of #6 plastic and is largely not recyclable because of food contamination. I will explore these topics more in Part 3 of this series. For now, please know this, these containers leach harmful chemicals into your food, especially when heated. The best thing you can do is not to use them.

When ordering take-out, you can always ask the restaurant if they use “Styrofoam” or polystyrene containers. If they do, you can either ask if they have an alternative or decide to order from somewhere else. When bringing leftovers home from a restaurant, keep a glass or metal container in your car specifically for such occasions. It’s also a good idea to bring your own reusable coffee mug to coffee shops. As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, please try to avoid eating food in polystyrene, and definitely stop reheating your food in polystyrene containers in the microwavePolystyrene is toxic to human health. I will cover this in more detail in my next post, Part 2.

Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to keep up with this short series and others to come!

 

Additional Resource:

Article, “Is the 30-Year-Long Styrofoam War Nearing Its End?” by Katherine Martinelli, JSTOR Daily, 

Footnotes:

Update: Death of a Plastic Shower Curtain, Part 3

Last updated on February 4, 2021.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the death of my vinyl plastic shower curtain liner, and my decision to never buy plastic liners again. Plastic liners off-gas toxic chemicals in your home and the curtains can end up in the ocean after disposal. I tried using the fabric curtain without a liner, but it quickly grew mildew and mold and after washing it several times, it started to fall apart. So in my second post, I repaired it and then coated the bottom half of the curtain (where the most moisture accumulates) with Otter Wax.

This, however, was a complete failure.

The cloth curtain grew mildew and mold even quicker, and to the point that I could no longer clean it. I don’t know if I spread the Otter Wax unevenly or if I just didn’t apply enough of it onto the fabric. It seemed that the nooks and crannies of the fabric weave held in moisture easier. Perhaps Otter Wax was not meant to prevent mold growth in fabric that is constantly in a warm, moist environment.

Cloth shower curtain with mildew growth

Cloth shower curtain with mildew growth

No More Plastic

I refuse to give up and go back to vinyl/plastic shower curtain liners. Since first writing about my shower curtain pursuit in 2018, I have learned a lot about the chemical compositions of plastics and how they adversely affect human health. Captain Charles Moore wrote about this subject in his book, Plastic Ocean:

“Who doesn’t know that potent ‘plasticky’ smell that somehow we’ve come to associate with ‘new’ and ‘clean’?”

He cited a 2008 study that quantified fumes off-gassing from PVC shower curtains, in which they logged 108 chemicals, mostly volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates. “Prolonged exposure to these chemicals is associated with respiratory irritation, headaches, nausea, and potential harm to the liver, the kidneys, and the central nervous system. They can also cause cancer.” There are now many studies about off-gassing plastics and they all indicate the same health problems.

Failing Forward

If you’ll recall from my second post, the gray cloth shower curtain was intended to be used with a plastic liner and not meant to withstand daily use without one. So I learned to invest in a better cloth shower curtain, one intended to be used solely. The lower cost of plastic shower curtains is not worth the environmental consequences nor the risks to my family’s health. I decided to purchase a hemp canvas shower curtain from lifewithoutplastic.com. Hemp fabrics inhibit mold and mildew growth which makes them a great option for shower curtains. It was expensive but it was the best option for our home. I’ve had it for just over one year now, and I will share my trials and errors with you.

Hemp shower curtain in package

Cloth shower curtains require special care

Overall, I like this shower curtain, but it is not perfect. We adjusted the curtain rod because this curtain was much longer than our old shower curtain. But then the first time I washed and dried it, the curtain shrunk by about 7 inches! So again, we had to adjust the shower curtain rod, which again marked up the walls. I learned that it is best to simply wash it in the machine and rehang it to dry.

The hemp shower curtain came with specific care instructions, and although they appeared unprofessional, I tried to follow them. We draw the curtain outside of the shower to let it dry out after every shower. But I do not launder it weekly. I have had some mold growth so I have boiled it in hot water to kill it per the instructions and that seemed to work.

Hemp shower curtain instructions

However, upon writing this post, I discovered that the instructions have been updated on the website and are different from the ones I received in the package. They now recommend washing it every few weeks instead of weekly. If mold appears, they suggest washing the shower curtain with half a cup of Borax and/or oxygen bleach in the machine on the delicate cycle. Last, they indicate to hang dry it – I wish I’d known that before drying it in the dryer and thus shrinking it that first time!

Hemp shower curtain in bathroom
This is the hemp curtain as of this writing. You can see slight discoloration at the bottom but I don’t find it all that noticeable.

Shopping for Shower Curtains

Obviously, stay away from plastic shower curtains, including plastic-derived fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and microfiber. These synthetics can cause as much environmental damage as vinyl, especially when laundered. Some of these “fabric” polyester curtains even contain chemicals to make the plastic fabric water repellent. Ingredients such as perfluorooctane sulfonate, a chemical known to cause cancer and has a Proposition 65 warning, is just one example I found on Kohls’ website. If you do happen to find a cotton and “chemical-free” shower curtain at a department store, these almost always recommend using a liner with the curtain, defeating the purpose of switching to a fabric shower curtain. I’ve found examples of those on Target’s website.

Look for hemp or a hemp cotton blend. If you can’t find a hemp curtain in your price range, get a cotton curtain so that you can wash it regularly. Read the fine print you know exactly what type of fabric it is. Check the details as some fabric curtains have a disclaimer such as, “recommend using with a shower curtain liner.” This often indicates that the curtain cannot withstand constant water exposure and will not last very long. Also, read the reviews to help determine durability and quality.

Another option is reclaimed sailcloth, which I mentioned in a previous post. This is what I’d like to purchase someday as long as I can find one made of authentic, reclaimed sailcloth. These generally run in the $200-$300 range and I frankly cannot afford one right now.

Reclaimed sailcloth shower curtain
Reclaimed sailcloth shower curtain, from Etsy. Photo by seller

Conclusion

Other than having glass doors professionally installed, I’m not sure that there is a perfect replacement for a plastic shower curtain. Although a better option than plastic by far, the mold-resistant hemp canvas shower curtain is not perfect. This curtain does not round or cover the ends of the shower the way a plastic curtain does, so some water gets out and we have to clean up small amounts of water on the walls and floors after each shower.

Unfortunately, the curtain has begun to deteriorate the fabric on the bottom section where it gets the wettest and where mold grows. I think I’m going to hem it where the holes are rather than trying to patch it. It might be my fault for not laundering it often enough. But I guess I was hoping for more durability for the amount I paid for it. Still, this is the best solution I have at this time, so I will continue with this curtain. If I have to do something different, I’ll be sure to update this post with a Part 4!

Corner of curtain, falling apart
One corner of the curtain is starting to fall apart. It is also not very noticeable.

I hope that this short series has been helpful and saved you some time and effort. Thanks for reading and please subscribe. I’d love to hear about your experience so please leave me a comment below!

 

Disclaimers: This post contains one affiliate at lifewithoutplastic.com. All photos by me except where noted.