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:

Eco-Friendly Ways to Manage Fall Leaves

Last updated on February 27, 2021.

Red and orange leave on ground
Photo by me

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fall is my favorite season! I love the drop in temperature, the changing hues, the sight of leaves floating down, and the sound of leaves crunching under my feet. We have a big backyard with a wooded area, hence lots of trees. We rarely rake our leaves because I like the sight of them and my son and I can hunt pretty ones.

But by the end of the season, many people feel the need to remove leaves. Here are some eco-friendly tips about how to manage the fall leaves in your yard.

“Autumn leaves are falling, filling up the streets; golden colors on the lawn, nature’s trick or treat!”–Rusty Fischer

Three colorful leaves lined up together
Photo by me

To remove, or not to remove

I am a proponent of letting nature go through its natural process. We leave our leaves in the fall and by spring we either mow them and let the bits settle into the ground, or we rake them and put them in our compost bin. Leave your leaves if you can! Let your kids or dogs play in them. This is the most natural and Earth-friendly option.

But leaves can sometimes cause problems and in those situations must be removed. Leaves left on some types of grass will smother grass growth come spring. Leaves left in your yard can also allow a certain type of outdoor mold to grow on your lawn. Leaf dander can really affect people with allergies (I’m one of them, so no argument there). Also, leaves cannot be left on roofs and in gutters for obvious reasons.

Ways NOT to Dispose of Leaves

Whether you rake, blow, shovel, or mow your leaves, there are several natural and healthy ways to dispose of them. But whatever you do, please don’t bag them in plastic! Placing 100% biodegradable contents into a sealed plastic bag that goes to a landfill where they will never biodegrade is the worst practice for the environment.

Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags
Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags. Photo by me
Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags
Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags. Photo by me

When I took this photo in my neighborhood, I was trying to figure out why people bag their leaves in plastic (there are multiple neighbors with bagged leaves right now). But then I discovered that the city’s website indicates to residents that they may bag up leaves and yard waste and request separate pick up from the regular garbage pick up. The website says you can also put them loose on your curb for Loose Leaf collection (where they use the giant vacuum truck). But what the website does not say is what happens to those leaves after they are picked up. I’m sure many don’t give it a second thought – out of sight, out of mind – so the homeowner probably believes they were doing the right thing.

I emailed the City of Chattanooga to find out what happens to the bagged leaves, but it took 4 email exchanges to obtain a thorough answer. It turns out that paper or plastic bagged leaves are picked up by the city’s waste contractor (WestRock) and taken to the landfill. Only the unbagged loose leaves that are left on the curb are picked up by the city and taken to the city’s wood composting facility. I don’t think many residents know this because if they did, I think people would change their practice or request the city change its protocol. There is a lack of clarity on the website and through their email service, and maybe people don’t think or have time to ask for additional information.

Unfortunately, I doubt we are the only city that handles leaves this way. So please, always check with your municipality before bagging your leaves!

Another neighbor takes his yard debris, including leaves, and puts them unbagged into his city garbage can. He may believe that they will decompose and not know that nothing decomposes in a standard landfill. So it is very important to refrain from this practice as well.

Yellow leaf on the ground
Photo by me

Ways to Dispose of Leaves

If you must have your leaves removed, you’ll need to check with your local municipality about leaf collection and how they dispose of the leaves. Do they send them to a compost facility? Are they sent to the incinerator? Or are they landfilled? Try to find the option that allows the leaves to decompose, such as the option to put them on the curb and have them vacuumed up by city services. Keep asking questions if you don’t get a thorough response the first time.

The best option is to put leaves in your compost. Compost thrives from having a variety of materials, especially dead leaf matter mixed with food waste. So rake them and put them in your compost. And if you don’t have a compost bin, maybe this is a good time to start one!

If you have woods around your yard, you can easily find a place to dump your leaves. This home below, as you can see, has a wooded area adjacent to their land where they could’ve dumped these leaves and let nature take its course. You will want to avoid dumping them in ditches or waterways to prevent flooding.

Yard with leaves
Photo by me

A third option is to save them to use as a mulch cover. If your mower has a bagged mulch option, you could mow and mulch them and use them in the spring for your garden.

Last, some like to burn leaves. Besides the obvious safety and fire hazards, it turns out that the practice can have health hazards too. According to Purdue University, the smoke from burning leaves contains tiny particles and gases that can accumulate in the lungs over time. Additionally, the smoke from moist leaves gives off hydrocarbons, an irritant to the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs but also which sometimes are carcinogenic.1

Raked leaves in yard with bench
Image by utroja0 from Pixabay

Enjoy Fall!

Regardless of how you deal with your leaves, enjoy fall! It’s a beautiful season that’s the beginning of a renewal. It features a few of the most fun holidays, the weather is cooler for outdoor activities, and it’s gorgeous. Maybe forget raking the leaves and just enjoy the season? Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

“Aprils have never meant much to me, autumns seem that season of beginning, spring.”– Truman Capote

Footnote:

Ironing Mat review

Magnetic ironing mat with iron on washing machine
Photo by me

Quite a few years ago, when we lived in a 700 square foot house, I let go of my ironing board in favor of an ironing mat, one that has magnets and stays still right on top of your washing machine. I thought this was the most clever invention for people living small or with limited space. Now that I’m still using it 7 years later and living in a slightly bigger house, I figured it was time I featured it here.

About the portable ironing mat

I purchased my mat on Amazon, and while that specific one is no longer available, there are many similar mats online. It is about 33″ x 19″, foldable, and has two strong magnets on both ends to hold it securely to the washer or dryer. Several brands say these are safe to use on surfaces other than metal by using a towel underneath. I store it with the iron under the sink in the laundry room. It is several layers thick and has a quilted surface on both sides, made to withstand high heat. Like any ironing board, though, you’d never leave the iron unattended.

Close-up of the mat secured with magnets.
The magnets are very strong. Photo by me

Quilting and Crafting

I am an amateur quilter and crafter striving for a minimalist lifestyle, and I am able to use this mat for all but the largest of projects. For large projects, such as a queen-sized quilt, I borrow an ironing board – there’s no need to own one for the once every 5 or more years that I need a regular-sized board. I’ve used the mat for basic ironing and mending, small sewing projects, making lap and twin-sized quilts, and doing other crafts with my son. Honestly, I loved my mat, so much so that as I mentioned, I decided it was something I should feature on my website.

But as I sat down to write this post, I made a grim and eye-opening discovery. Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com wrote a post about replacing her “possibly toxic” tabletop ironing board and she mentioned that many ironing board covers and mats are coated with tetrafluoroethylene, a family of chemicals better known as Teflon. Once I researched it further, I confirmed that the ironing mat I’ve been using and loving for years was likely toxic.

Do not buy one of these ironing mats. See below for the best alternative.

Iron and ironing mat on a washing machine with quilt sections.
Ironing sections of a quilt I made last year. Photo by me

Dangerous fumes

All versions of this chemical non-stick coating have the potential to be very toxic to human health. Teflon in its various forms (PTFE, PFOAS, PFAS, PFOS, PFBS, etc.) is known to cause a variety of illnesses in humans and is a known carcinogen. Products coated with it can off-gas at high temperatures, so ironing on it is unsafe.

It turns out that many ironing board covers and ironing mats are coated with a version of these chemicals. I was so disappointed to learn this about my mat because I do love it. When I searched my purchase history on Amazon, I realized that I ordered and began using this during my pregnancy. I did not know many of the things I know now about unsafe toxins and chemicals in our everyday products, so needless to say this terrifies me! Did I expose my baby to these chemicals?

“Nowadays, most irons and ironing board covers are coated with tetrafluoroethylene plastic, better known as Teflon. Given that heating plastic makes it outgas its toxic fumes, irons and ironing board covers seem odd places to put it, particularly since a non-stick finish is not even necessary for the task.” -Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Toxic-Free

Wool Pressing Mat

Once I was aware of the potential dangers of a Teflon coated ironing mat, I began seeking a safe, non-toxic, chemical-free alternative. I also wanted the alternative to be small and easy to store. After reading research other bloggers have done, it turns out wool pressing or ironing mats are the best options. Many quilters swear by the wool mats and indicate that they are better because they reduce ironing time and grip the fabric well. There are many of these for sale online but look for certain aspects: make sure it is 100% wool, make sure the wool is sustainably sourced and cruelty-free, and ask the seller to not ship it in plastic! I recommend searching “wool ironing mat” or “wool pressing mat” online and reading multiple reviews from sewists and quilters. Make sure to read the comments too as there are usually additional tidbits of information there.

Iron with purple accents
Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

I plan to buy one of these in the near future, and I will update this post when I do! If you’ve had any experience with wool pressing mats or other ironing mats, please let me know in the comments below! Thank you for reading, and please subscribe. Happy ironing!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “DIY Plastic-Free Ironing Board Cover and Natural Wool Pad,” Myplasticfreelife.com, December 26, 2016.

Article, “An Honest Review of Wool Pressing Mats,” SuzyQuilts.com, accessed November 4, 2020.

Video, “Wool Pressing Mats: What is all the HYPE about?” Sparrow Quilt Company, January 12, 2019.

 

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.