Scientists Explain Why You Should Get a Real Christmas tree for Your Room, Not a Plastic One

Christmas tree, experiment

Siim Salmar cuts pieces off a plastic Christmas tree to put them into a solution. Image credit: Kristjan Teedema

It’s that time of year again, when decisions about getting a Christmas tree are being made. In Estonia, there are many possibilities: not to have a Christmas tree altogether; to buy a spruce or fir from the square in front of a shop; to find a place on the map by the Estonian State Forest Management Centre (RMK) and go get your own Christmas tree from the forest; or to get a tree from a forest that you own. And then there’s the last resort – an artificial Christmas tree.

Estonian families have traditionally brought their Christmas trees from the forest. Children would hop on the sleigh and then the journey to the forest would begin, with finding a spruce (or a fir) in mind. It was sometimes a bit crooked or faded, but still your own Christmas tree, grown on Estonian soil.

Made in China

There’s nothing Estonian about an artificial Christmas tree. The main producer of Christmas trees made by PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is China. Even when the label says that the tree is produced in the EU, one can be sure that the PVC material comes from China.

Recently, Tartu Postimees brought a brunch of a fake Christmas trees to the lab, where Siim Salmar, an associate professor of organic chemistry at the University of Tartu, made the necessary analyses to discover a little about its chemical nature.

chemistry experiment, christmas tree

A plastic Christmas tree branch went through a series of chemical experiments. Image credit: Kristjan Teedema

While observing the branch, Salmar assured that it was a “tree” made of polyvinyl chloride, indeed – made of a substance that in nature would decompose in 200-400 years. Thus, when you bury an artificial Christmas tree, it will be around for a really long time.

Salmar said that when the substance the tree is made of is polyvinyl chloride, stabilizers should be added, usually heavy metals such as tin. In the European Union, lead is forbidden, as it’s among the three most poisonous metals.
After the analyses were performed, it turned out that while making this artificial tree, tin was used, not lead, so results of the analysis were satisfying, with no direct danger to the health of the general population detected.

christmas tree, experiments

The solution made from a Christmas tree going for analysis. Image credit: Kristjan Teedema

In addition to that, it was found that there was quite a lot of boron in the branch, which could be a danger to health in case of prolonged exposure. “Boron is being used to make the trees more fire-proof”, Salmar explained.

Salmar concluded that there was nothing in the artificial tree that would be against the rules.

chemical experiment, christmas tree

It was proved that the Christmas tree was made from PVC. Image credit: Kristjan Teedema

According to Salmar, it is really hard to get rid of an artificial Christmas tree. “One definitely should not burn it, as dangerous chemical compounds would be produced”.
It is also hard to recycle such an object. Many scientific journals claim that an artificial Christmas tree would only be profitable if one uses it for nine years. But light and oxygen will work together to decompose PVC, with new compounds coming about — not necessarily beneficial to humans. Salmar himself would bring a real tree home, from a forest belonging to the state.

But PVC emits other poisonous compounds, as well. The Veterinary and Food Board has issued the following information about the material: Polyvinyl chlorid is a plastic material of low thermal stability. As it decomposes at 70 C, hydrochlorid (HCl) emerges, a gas that has a distinct smell but no colour and poses a health danger. A room wouldn’t normally have this high of a temperature, but Christmas lights on a fake tree can bring it about.
Annika Pertman, a chief specialist at the Department of Radiation of the Estonian Environmental Board, said that when a plastic tree is usable, it should be reused.
“Plastic trees that are not usable should be brought to the nearest waste station or collecting spot”, she said.

Christmas tree from a state forest

Hardi Tullus, Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology at Estonian University of Life Sciences, does not recommend using an artificial Christmas tree, as it is made of oil. Tullus said that bringing a tree from the forest doesn’t involve fossil fuels or greenhouse gases.
“I don’t believe that people like to stare at the same artificial tree for ten years. Of course, using a new plastic tree every year would be even worse”, he said.

Hardi Tullus, professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology, Estonian University of Life Sciences

Hardi Tullus, Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology of the Estonian University of Life Sciences. Image credit: Margus Ansu

Tullus brings his own spruce from a forest near his home as well, as the trees will grow back. “There are plenty of spruces in Estonian forests and the RMK is doing a good job, as everyone can bring their own tree from the forest”. People have an emotional connection with real spruce, while bringing it from woods is a really enjoyable experience.

“It’s important that one makes a fresh cut to the tree and then puts it into water right away”, the professor recommended. “After three or four days, one should cut off another couple of centimetres”.

Tarmo Vahter, a project manager at a spruce and fir growing company called Artiston, thinks that the market has enough room for both real and fake Christmas trees. According to Vahter, people experiment: “They have a fake tree for a couple of years, and then a real one again. A spruce just smells like a spruce; that’s why there will always be those who prefer to buy it”.

A single spruce would grow about seven years after planting, then it will be sold at the marketplace. As the trees are growing, weed control is applied, as well as croppings to make them thicker. Vahter added that 10-20 per cent of all trees won’t get sold and will end up in a fireplace.

The longer, original version of the story appeared in the Estonian newspaper Tartu Postimees.

Editors’ comment: Tradition of bringing Christmas tree home came from Germany and didn’t become a tradition in Estonia until 20th century. Therefore, there is always the third option of not using Christmas tree in Christmas decorations.

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