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Living Christmas: Non-Toxic Christmas Tree


LIVING CHRISTMAS NON-TOXIC CHRISTMAS TREEThis is a quick post about non-toxic Christmas trees from Santa Webb, ho ho ho (aka Irina’s husband). I’m giving Irina the day off so she can recover from a quick trip to Napa.


Growing up, I only wanted a real Christmas tree, and always thought that artificial Christmas trees were an apostasy. As I got older, I thought about things like carbon footprints and the fact that we were bringing a large living thing into our home and watching it slowly die. As a bachelor, this Santa didn’t have time or energy to sort through these thorny issues and so I opted for the $19.99 pre-lit tree from Walgreens, which served me well through my Christmases as a bachelor.


A few years ago, though, when our boy was two and a half, he told us solemnly, “Santa’s coming . . . someday.” So it was time to step up our game.


Fortunately, I had done a lot of research. At the time I started my research, I had concluded that an artificial tree was the way to go. But Irina’s first question is always – “Is it made of toxic chemicals?” Anticipating this important question, I did a lot of research to find out.


The news was not good (more on this next year perhaps). Most trees are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). There are some newer options made of polyethylene plastic (PE) that are very lifelike, and these are better options, but from a toxic chemicals standpoint, still not exactly a non-toxic Christmas tree.


So I was all set to bring a chopped down real tree into our home when I ran across a company called The Living Christmas Company. The idea is (wait for it) you rent a live tree from them. They deliver the tree to you, place it in your home, and come and pick it up after the holidays, all for one not so low price. They will even save it for you for next year. You can’t really pick out your tree, and so the tree will probably not look “perfect.”


Our Experience with Living Non-Toxic Christmas Tree


We rented with this company for three years. The first year was pretty positive. I bought a drip pan for changing oil and placed it on our hardwood floor. They showed up on time, and hauled the tree (it probably weighed several hundred pounds) up a short flight of stairs into our home. They placed it in a watertight container on the drip pan I had placed. I turned a flat spot toward the wall, put lights on it, our boy decorated the bottom two feet and I did the rest. He loved it, and we love that it is not going to be firewood or landfill in a month.


The second year was a little bit different. When they delivered the tree, it looked fine, but a little smaller than the first year’s. And then, even though we followed the directions to put ice cubes in it every other day, the whole tree got very dry and lost a lot of needles. It made us think that the tree had not been properly cared for over the summer. Maybe I am wrong, and I am not a tree expert, so that is just my opinion, but it was very different from our first year.


And then last year, it was even worse. The tree lost what seemed like most of its needles, even though we again emptied our ice tray into the bucket in which the tree sat every other day.


Yes, this non-toxic Christmas tree was a bit pricey. And unfortunately, it is not available in all areas. But it’s an idea whose time has come, so look for it in your neck of the fir tree woods.


Here are some pictures of our first-year tree. Note the huge pot.


Almost as big as Santa’s pot. Ho Ho Ho! (I’m working on, OK?)



So, since that non-toxic Christmas tree idea is not going to work this year, it’s back to the drawing boards. Here is what my research provided.


So what about real non-toxic Christmas tree options?


If you want to use a real tree, that’s fine, but there are some potential issues:


Chemicals: Trees may be covered with pesticides and herbicides. In order to help guard against this, look for organically grown trees, or at least trees where the chemicals are sprayed around the trees as opposed to directly on them. You can find organic Christmas tree farms here and here.


Mold:  I found references to a State University of New York study that concluded that molds found in live Christmas trees can set off reactions like severe asthma attacks, fatigue, and sinus congestion.


Allergies: If someone in your family (or someone who will be visiting) has allergies, they can be triggered by a real tree.  You can read more about the allergies here.


Ho Ho No!


What about artificial Christmas trees?  What is wrong with them?


Well, they can be a real problem. Most have historically been made with PVC plastic, which is really, really bad, and if you don’t believe me, click here to see what my wife has to say about PVC. (I have found that disagreeing with my wife is a losing proposition, so you might was well, too.) One of the biggest problems with PVC is that it can contain lead, often used to stabilize the plastic, especially when manufactured overseas (I’m looking at you, China, where, unfortunately, it seems most artificial trees are made). This can flake off, creating lead dust, which can be inhaled and ingested. Lead is nasty stuff. In fact, California requires trees containing PVC to carry a warning label regarding lead.


There is some good news, but not great news. Some manufacturers are making trees that have a percentage of their needles made from PE (polyethylene) as opposed to PVC. PE is among the safer plastics. Unfortunately, there do not appear to be many trees made entirely of PE (I only found one). So if you want a truly non-toxic Christmas tree, well, artificial is not the way to go-ho-ho.


In addition to PVC, artificial Christmas trees also use flame retardants. Even PE trees have flame retardants, and, not surprisingly, flame retardants are not super good for you either. To read more about flame retardants, feel free to read this piece here.


If you decide to buy an artificial Christmas tree, there are certain precautions you should take:


  • Wear gloves when setting it up and decorating. (The Balsam Hill trees actually come with a set of cotton gloves, which I think is a nice touch.)


  • Don’t let kids touch the tree. This is fine with some kids and will be impossible with other kids.


  • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling (and don’t handle if you’re pregnant).


  • Damp mop/HEPA vacuum thoroughly.


Better Christmas Trees but Not Quite Non-Toxic Christmas Tree Options


This said, here are some trees that would be better buys in our opinion.  Here are some trees that have a percentage of their needles made from PE instead of PVC.


This tree claims to be made of 100% PE needles (and in its entertainingly over-the-top product description, the manufacturer also invites you to leave it up year-round and to “revel in its stark beauty;” while this is entertaining, it strains credulity, and actually makes me wonder how truthful the “PVC-free” claim is).


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Balsam Hill Christmas Tree (80% PE, which is the highest level I found among the mixed PE/PVC trees)


Balsam Hill Christmas Tree (80% PE, which is the highest level I found among the mixed PE/PVC trees)



National Tree Christmas Tree (apparently 37% PE)


Tree Classics Christmas Tree (36% PE)




By the way, be careful of these Christmas trees


The first one claims it is “eco-friendly” but is made of PVC. In fact, they use the keyword phrase “pvc free Christmas tree” right there in the URL, hoping apparently to trap people into thinking that the tree is actually PVC-free. It is not. They do not explain the basis for the “eco-friendly” claim, and it seems to us nothing but an attempt to greenwash you.


The second one says in the description that it is 100% PE, but in the questions, the manufacturer admits that it is not 100% PE, and does not provide a percentage.


In short, there is a lot to consider and no clear-cut answers. There are drawbacks at every turn. As with just about everything in this blog, forewarned is forearmed. Merry Christmas! Ho Ho Ho!


2018 Update About Non-Toxic Christmas Tree


We are learning that one of the reasons our rented tree lost its needles is that true pines need cold winters to thrive, and they do not do well in our warm homes for longer than a week.


A good option is to get a living Norfolk Island pine.  It is a tropical plant native to South Pacific that looks like a true pine.  Because it is a tropical plant, it thrives in warm temperature.  It can be grown indoors all year round.   You can start with a small inexpensive one, and it will grow bigger each year.  It can grow as tall as feet.


Here are some non-toxic Christmas tree options


Norfolk Island Pine – The Indoor Christmas Tree


Costa Farms Live Indoor Christmas Tree

Costa Farms Live Charlie Brown Christmas Tree

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14 thoughts on “Living Christmas: Non-Toxic Christmas Tree”

  1. Great post! I have always wanted to have a living Christmas tree to bring it inside for the holidays, then place it back outside. I would probably have to put it in a decorated pot and it would probably have to be smaller in size as my husband and I would be the ones bringing it inside.

    For the past couple of years, we have been shopping at a local nursery (1 mile away) to our live Christmas tree. Yes, it does cost more than at a Lowe’s or Home Depot, but they trees always look better, smell better and last longer.

    Our neighborhood picks up the trees and mulches them. I would throw it in our compost pile, but evergreen trees take a lot longer to decompose.

    Maybe next year, I will start a tradition with a smaller living tree.

    1. They assured me that they do not spray with any insecticides and the trees are organic. The downside is you may get a few extra bugs in your house, which I personally do not mind. 🙂

  2. We have had a real living christmas tree the last couple of years.. It didn’t cost us much to buy and gets planted every year after christmas in our garden and dug out again the next christmas. It is not big but i feel better about having a living tree in the house, I can reuse it every year and it is cheap. May be worth considering over hiring a tree in a pot?

  3. I have a live Christmas tree. It is on the small side, but has pretty needles. I put it up on a stool and drape the bottom so it still looks quite festive and above eye level.

    This is my 4th. Each one gets used 3 Christmases and then planted so the price is about similar to buying a cut one. I keep it inside for just 1 week though, then it goes back outside, preferably in part shade because of how dry and hot it gets in the summer in San Rafael. One died before I could plant it but a bird had made a nest in it, so it was cool that it got to be used in that way. This one is on its third year and has lost its top, so we will have to be creative. It requires some loving care all year and that’s kind of nice too. I have to find someone to plant it at higher altitude, not in the Bay Area. My other trees were planted by a friend in San Leandro.

  4. Isn’t it rather good for the carbon footprint to cut down a living tree? Especially since they will only get planted for the Christmas industry…lots of young trees grow (which are able to absorb more carbon than old trees) get cut down for Christmas and then end in compost. For years I thought I’m doing at least no damage environmentally by buying an organic tree and put in in compost after?

  5. Do you know If there been any breakthroughs with an “eco friendly tree” since you wrote this article? For the past few years we have had a wooden driftwood tree but it is very small and my 3 little boys would love a “proper” Christmas tree this year.. I just can’t stand the thought of bringing all those chemicals into the house.

  6. Another few options would be to buy a living pine tree from a nursery and then if you have no place to plant it after Christmas (you live in an apt or have a smaller yard) you can donate it to a group that plants trees in your area (if you have one). Like here in Fresno we have a group called Tree Fresno who go around planting trees in public parks, school yards, & along streets. Or perhaps a friend with a larger yard would like it? Or another option is to get a living Norfolk Island pine which is a tropical plant (not technically a true pine) that can be grown indoors year round. Starting with a small one is very inexpensive & each year your tree will be a little bit bigger giving you more to decorate. Also, part of the reason your rented trees may have struggled is because true pines need the cold winters & so don’t do well in our warm homes for long. True pines should only be kept indoors for a week (or maybe two) tops.

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