FocusPVC Christmas trees worry greener buyers

25 December 2008 06:31  [Source: ICIS news]

Most fake trees are made of PVC

By Greg Holt

HOUSTON (ICIS news)--In the effort to build a more environmentally conscious society in the US, even the Christmas trees marking Thursday's holiday have been drawn into the debate over greener consumer choice.

In landscape increasingly shaped by organic food stores and hybrid vehicles, many people have found it difficult to ignore the fact that most of the immortal, plastic trees in their homes are made from an old enemy of the environmental activist - polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Artificial Christmas trees have some obvious advantages over their living counterparts. They do not drop needles all over the floor, they can be purchased once and packed away every year with the rest of the ornaments, and they do not smell like pine.

By contrast, live trees perhaps add a touch of nature and tradition against the more commercial aspects of the Christmas season, and buying one at a tree farm can be a fun experience, especially if there is a hay ride involved.

The fire hazard issue is basically a moot point (a well-watered Douglas-fir is unlikely to burn, while a fake tree is not completely fire-proof), so much of the Christmas tree debate that moves beyond aesthetics has typically focused on environmental impacts.

Most artificial Christmas trees are made from PVC, a thermoplastic polymer routinely attacked by environmental groups such as Greenpeace for its alleged toxicity.

Greenpeace has repeatedly claimed that PVC releases carcinogenic dioxins when burned for disposal and often contains lead stabilisers that can leak out and poison those in contact with the plastic. Primarily for these reasons, Greenpeace has called for a ban on PVC in all consumer products.

Yet when it comes to Christmas trees, Greenpeace spokesperson Casey Harrell said the group has not launched a targeted campaign in the same way it has against the use of PVC in toys, electronics and shower curtains - in part because it doesn’t view the live tree industry as a much better option.

“Given Greenpeace's long history campaigning against PVC, it should come as no surprise that we are not in favour of PVC Christmas trees,” Harrell said.

The group would rather “move away from the PVC tree versus the cut-down tree debate and instead encourage alternative options like live trees that can be replanted”, Harrell said.

Yet many of the arguments Greenpeace has made against PVC are either inaccurate or exaggerated, said Allen Blakey, spokesperson for the Vinyl Institute, a US PVC trade group.

PVC is an extremely small source of dioxin, and the amount of dioxin in the environment would be essentially unchanged if PVC were not being manufactured, Blakey said.

“We know of no instance of an artificial PVC tree - domestic or imported - causing harm or serious risk because of the materials used in the tree,” Blakey said. “It is true that lead-based stabilisers may be used to make artificial trees...but the lead is held tightly in the plastic.”

More obvious are the environmental impacts of artificial tree production. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group that promotes live trees over fake ones, more than 85% of artificial trees purchased in the US are made in China are and transported via container ships that pollute harbours and waterways.

Most of the PVC in China is produced in a carbide-based process that uses coal as its feedstock, rather the natural gas. Live tree farms, by contrast, do a small part in actually cleaning the air, although fertilizers used to grow the trees can cause polluting chemical runoff.

Tree disposal is also an issue. Most municipalities have programs to pick up live trees in the week after Christmas and turn them into mulch, while most artificial trees will end up buried in a landfill.

But concerns about the dangers of PVC have had the strongest impact on the Christmas tree debate, and artificial tree manufacturers have even developed “ecologically friendly” fake trees with polyethylene needles.

Nevertheless, PVC will likely be a part of Christmas celebrations for a long time to come. Whether the tree is live or fake, most are decorated with Christmas lights made from PVC.

For more on PVC, visit ICIS chemical intelligence
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By: Greg Holt
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