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I know I’m posting this in March, but many of the creative alternative ideas involves saving up materials, such as egg cartons, to create your own spectacular holiday decorations. This post centers on the traditional Christmas holiday, but the ideas can spark creative ideas that can be applied  to other holiday types/ cultures. Making your own decorations, gifts and possibly even Christmas trees can have the benefit of avoiding toxic materials and conspicuous consumerism.

This post was originally posted here: which contains hyperlinks and pictures that are lacking in the text below.

Topics covered in this post:

1. Christmas Trees

2. Decorations (lights, ornaments, etc)

3. Gifts

4. Wrapping

1. Christmas Tree 🎄 best options in terms of toxicity and eco-friendliness. I discovered that pretty much all fake trees (I’ll list exceptions) are far worse than I realized. But there are pros and cons to every option, and I’ve organized by best options within four categories of trees, including some awesome alternative ideas.

A. Best option for REAL trees: Organically (approved by the Soil Association) grown, not just “sustainable” is one of the best, least toxic options of all. Reasons for buying an organic tree, and a Great list for finding an organic tree in your state. Mamavation looked into Christmas trees and also has some links for finding organic ones, but note that I don’t agree with her brand suggestions for air purifiers.

As far as cutting a tree from a forest, I suppose that would be considered organic; however, that is not environmentally friendly unless you have a permit to remove one as part of forest management, or are planting a new one in it’s place.

Cons: can be difficult to find, and expensive. Another con is the potential for any real tree (Organic or even if sprayed) to contain mold or bugs including ticks. They (and the water they sit in) can also be toxic to pets. They are also messy, a fire hazard, dangerous around small children, and may trigger allergic reactions.

“Regular” (not organic) trees are farmed and thus fairly sustainable because new trees are grown continually once they are cut; however, they are sprayed with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, which can pollute waterways and humans. Some trees are shipped in from forests in Norway if you are in Europe, or Canada if you are in the US, which obviously increases that tree’s carbon footprint. You can look into getting a tree with the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) logo, but I haven’t looked deeply into the sustainability benefits of that. Most cities have programs to recycle (repurpose into mulch) trees, or you can leave in your backyard.

B. A fantastic variation on a real tree is a potted live tree or plant (preferably organic; ask the nursery if it is pesticide, fungicide and paint free) that will either continue living indoors, or be planted appropriately outdoors later. Look for a tree grown in the pot and not dug up and stuck in a pot just before transporting to the shops – quite often the roots will be damaged by doing this and the chances of it surviving until next Christmas will be almost zero.

Rent a living tree – Determined to have a real tree but you don’t have a green thumb and you don’t have anywhere to pot or replant one? Try renting one! There are companies that deliver trees to your door, then collect them after Christmas, re-using them year after year. Check online to see if any companies like this operate in your area. I’m not sure if any are organic.

Succulent trees are another fun idea. Rosemary trees or decorating a pineapple are edible ideas!

C. Another alternative idea are “trees” made out of materials like wood or cardboard. These are both sustainable (wood can be re-grown), reusable and biodegradable. Cons are that pets still might want to chew them… but as long as they are made of safe wood/ materials/ glues, it won’t be toxic.

My 9 foot wooden tree that my husband made (picture not available on this platform).

Felt or cloth trees are also an idea, though for non toxic warriors, you’d have to look into the felt materials; organic wool felt is available but expensive. Regular felt would still be preferable to a fake PVC tree in my opinion.

A very eco-friendly idea uses fallen tree branches.

Or use items in your house, such as books or egg cartons. Just try to mitigate the fire risk!

Legos are plastic but re-usable, and a small metal tree is also reusable. Both are space-saving.

D. Best option for a least-toxic FAKE/ artificial tree: Ikea; they recently made a bigger option that is still under $100. Other than that it is nearly impossible to find a 100% PE (polyethylene, a safer plastic, but still not toxicant-free) tree; Do NOT believe online claims that their trees are PVC-free – contact them and make sure you’re talking to someone who actually knows information about their trees, not just a customer service representative. Aleko brand on Wayfair had one advertised as PE but when I asked they said PVC. Same with Balsam Hill. I’ve heard that Home Depot might have PE trees. The Mamavation link in the real tree section lists some fake trees that are supposedly safer.

Shockingly, pretty much all other fake trees contain PVC (“death plastic” that is highly toxic and often contains lead, and/ or highly toxic flame retardants. PVC is dubbed the “poison” plastic, and you don’t need to have contact with it to impact health (though, you should avoid touching it). PVC is naturally hard and brittle – to become soft (like to make Christmas tree bristles) it needs to be softened with plasticizers (which are often highly toxic phthalates or possibly organotins which are likely better than phthalates but still toxic). These plasticizers are not bound to the plastic – they migrate out and accumulate in house dust and get inhaled and ingested with hand to mouth contact – esp by children. PVC can also contain toxic stabilizers like lead and other unbound contaminants. PVC is also highly toxic during manufacture and disposal – polluting our environment for its lifetime. So it’s something I recommend avoiding like the plague.

Here is a scientific study showing that fake trees have lead: “Results from these experiments show that…in the worst-case scenarios a substantial health risk to young children is quite possible.” However, this study is 16 years old and many companies are replacing lead with other stabilizers in PVC. Some trees are now a mixture of PVC and PE so at least it’s less PVC. And some even sell all PE trees (ikea). However, trees very often also contain Flame retardants and antimony (both are carcinogenic). Lead Safe Mama has also tested many fake trees and found lead, such as this one.

A 2013 study by the American Christmas Tree Association (yes, there is a Christmas Tree Association) revealed that more than 94 million American households, or 79%, displayed a Christmas tree in their home. Of those, about 80% were artificial and about 20% were real. So the impacts of artificial trees are magnified on a huge scale.

Artificial trees have three times the impact on climate change and resource depletion, are made of plastic and steel, require more energy/ environmental impacts to Create compared to real trees, almost always made and shipped from China, and are not recyclable (will eventually sit in a landfill). A tree life cycle analysis conducted in Canada reported that households would need to re-use their artificial tree for 20 years before it could be considered more environmentally friendly than a classic evergreen (And this doesn’t consider the health impacts of PVC). According to ACTA, the average lifespan of an artificial Christmas tree is only ten years–if it is even used for that long. But older fake trees are more dangerous, so I actually recommend throwing those away ASAP.

If you get a less toxic fake tree, try to keep it in use a long time. Also avoid getting ones with lights attached; because if the lights break it is hard to repair and the whole thing will end up being trashed. If your tree isn’t super toxic, you could make wreaths or other decorations with the components that are still in good shape before discarding the rest.

E. There is the option that you can have no tree at all – obviously this is the most eco friendly option, but not for everyone.

2. Decorations

Christmas lights often contain many toxic components, so please don’t let children touch them or do things like this (photos of babies/ kids playing with Christmas lights).

Any plug in lights will likely have high Lead or high Antimony. Battery operated Christmas lights are likely to be lead and antimony free. Just be sure to stick with a major retailer (Target, Wal Mart and IKEA have been found to be good) and skip the random brands on Amazon. Phillips confirmed they follow the toy guidelines of 90ppm or less. Ikea said they banned the use of lead but allow up to 300ppm incidental in cords (but their products are usually lead free).

Ornaments can contain antimony and lead. An alternative is making your own Ornaments with recipes such as one with baking soda and cornstarch.

Tinsel: I recommend avoiding it all as none of it is eco friendly and it poses a choking hazard. Older tinsel is actually lead! You can tell if you bend a filament it stays bent.

Candles. I haven’t actually read this (link not available here) because I have no interest in candles, but many people do.

Fabric garlands: Examples here and here (links not available here)

For general decor, try using artwork or crafts, or using bits of natural items.

Check out Lead Safe Mama’s compilation of all her testing of Christmas trees, decorations, lights and more.

3. Gifts

I absolutely despise conspicuous consumerism, so I implore you to think about what the holidays really mean to you. It’s a season of giving, but shouldn’t be a frenzy of feeling stressed and feeling the need to buy buy buy. Even the Pope agrees.

Here are thoughts I wrote in 2008, still true today:

Consider experience gifts:

A gift exchange with family or friends is a great way to reduce the number of gifts everyone has to buy.

Another thing to prevent giving gifts that won’t be used is simply to ask people exactly what they wan or need. If you can’t ask or they won’t answer, try wrapping cash and watch their face when they open it. Ditto if you wrap cash and put it as part of a white elephant trading style gift exchange. People will fight over the cash; it will be the most coveted item!

Or, strategically purchased gifts. I personally save up my purchases of things we need, such as clothes (which I usually buy during Black Friday sales) and water bottles, and present them as Christmas gifts. I give only a limited amount of toys, preferring to spread out toy giving through the year so they don’t get bored. Babies don’t understand gifts, so I don’t get much for my babies. If you want the experience of opening gifts, wrap packages of diapers, wipes, baby necessities.

Or, handmade creations.

Or make a variation on the 4-gift rule, each person gets four gifts for Christmas:

1. Something you want

2. Something you need,

3. Something to wear, and

4. Something to read.

Instead of advent calendar, an alternative is 12 days of Christmas with a book each day.

If you are buying toys, here (link not available) is a great Non-toxic toy list and Non-toxic stocking stuffers list. Or, my idea to avoid the clutter of a bunch of small things is to put one medium size toy or gift that fits in the stocking.

Tips for making your shopping and gifting more ethical and environmentally friendly:

4. Gift Wrapping

Fantastic list of eco friendly, non-toxic wrapping ideas. (Hyperlink missing on this platform)

Tips list for eco friendly wrapping, diy wreaths, diy garlands, dinner cracker poppers. (Hyperlink missing on this platform)

Be aware that not all wrapping is recyclable.

In response to the sentiment that you shouldn’t bother trying to reduce gifts and “just donate” what you don’t want, the thing (besides the ethics of donating things you think are toxic) about donating is, people act like you’re automatically helping someone else. If you donate a toy directly to another child, then yes, you helped give someone a gift. But if you donate to goodwill or some kind of thrift store, the store can only sell it for a small fraction of the original price (this is also true if you try to sell it yourself). So wal mart, amazon, whatever big retailer gets $20 or whatever was spent, and goodwill gets maybe $5. And some thrift stores have questionable ethics about where the money actually goes. So the big retailers are the big winners of this conspicuous consumerism. It’s much more ideal to reduce the amount of purchases so that people are buying what they will actually use.

Happy Holidays and joyful creating!

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