Q&A: Which Christmas Tree Is Greener? Real or Fake?

  • November 28, 2012 9:17 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

My family is just about to buy our Christmas tree for the holiday season and I just wanted to know if you buy a real or a fake tree?

Best,

Claire

Answer:

Hi Claire,

Thanks for writing. I commend your organization. I tend to be the last minute decorating (and shopping) type. Technically I’m not supposed to buy a tree at all–and not for eco-reasons! I’m Jewish. But growing up we always celebrated Christmas with a tree and all. Then when I was 10 my non-Jewish stepfather came into our lives, making our typical winter celebration, um, more kosher.

My family oddities aside, when it comes to trees–Jewish or not–holiday celebrators tend to get confused about which is better for the environment: real or fake. To which I add what I think is actually the greenest option: something potted you will keep alive indoors and then plant outdoors when the weather permits. Not interested or don’t have a spot to plant a tree? Let someone else it for you. Some places now rent out live trees.

But back to the more typical debate: real (cut) versus fake. Some people assume fake is best because it can be reused year after year. Unfortunately most faux trees are made of PVC (aka the poison plastic), last only a few years, and then wind up in a landfill. Not very green after all.

When it comes to real trees, millions of them do get cut down every holiday season. That said, more and more municipalities are offering ways to recycle or mulch these after the holidays. The website Earth911.com contends that about 93 percent of trees cut for Christmas are recycled through more than 4,000 available recycling programs. So unless you’re willing to fake it creatively with, say, a cardboard cut out or follow the ideas in this amazing ApartmentTherapy.com post, I’d opt for a small cut tree that you recycle or mulch once Santa has come and gone.

You didn’t ask, but as long as we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about tree lights. Those sparkly strands look good but they suck up more energy than you’d think, and their PVC wires might contain lead. To avoid energy drain and lead dust, skip the lights. Or try a lead-free LED strand.

Happy decorating!

Best,

Alexandra

Eco-Friendly Tips for Back-to-School Shopping

  • September 10, 2012 8:41 am

School starts today at loooong last! I don’t even bother shopping for anything until at least a few weeks into school to see what we actually “need” (usually nothing). Well that’s not entirely true. My mom had a tradition of always helping us choose a back-to-school outfit a few weeks before school started so we could get excited and picture what we’d be wearing as we went about the first day. It wasn’t always a new dress. Quite often it was a hand-me-down. So my daughter does have a first grader new dress–thanks to her grandmother–that has been waiting to be worn for about two weeks. I have loving memories of my own first grader first day dress. It was a brown and white gingham number with a red apple on my chest. Ah, the 70s.

On the topic, here’s my most recent post for Elizabeth Street and it’s all about eco-friendly back-to-school shopping. Maybe I’ll take my own advice come October….

Q&A: BPA and Plastics

  • August 8, 2012 8:18 am

Question:

Alexandra,
A friend just sent me a video of you talking about safety concerns about plastics and children. My wife and I are brand new parents. Our twins were born 6 weeks ago. We are using the Dr. Browns BPA-free bottles. My concern is we’ve been washing them in the dishwasher. I’m wondering about the possibility of substances (other than BPA) in the plastic leaching into the milk due to the heat in the dishwasher. Do you have any info on this? Where do you find your information? We’ve been reading a lot but haven’t seen any studies on possible dangers of BPA free plastics that are exposed to high temperatures. Do you think I should switch to glass or just start hand washing the plastic bottles I’ve got. Thanks for your help.

Best,
David

Answer:

Hi David,

Congrats on your new additions.

Watching that video of me talking about plastic, it should come as no surprise that I’m deeply wary of plastic for both environmental and health reasons and therefore fond of both shatterproof glass and/or stainless steel–especially for the early years and developmental moments. All plastics degrade when exposed to high temperatures. While the safety research has mainly been on BPA (plastic #7) and PVC/Vinyl (plastic #3), there are studies that have been done on what comes out of even the plastics that are considered safe by the scientific community, especially #1. Since you’re contending with twins, you might not be aware that the FDA recently finally banned BPA from baby bottles, though not from any other infant products (which is frustrating). There is no word on what manufacturers are supposed to be replacing BPA with, and if these chemicals are any safer than their banned predecessors. More reasons to avoid plastic….

Though there are great resources (like The Environmental Working Group) to turn to for information on plastic, staying on top of  the latest plastic safety details can be a full time job. This is another reason I prefer glass and stainless steel. You don’t have to keep on top of their safety.

Another bonus: If you are too tired to wash everything by hand, glass and stainless are your friends; both are fine in dishwasher. Keep in mind that any/all plastic you use should only ever go on the top rack of the dishwasher if you can’t hand wash.

Bottle issue solved, now get some sleep!

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Toxic Smells At Work

  • October 13, 2011 1:11 pm

THE QUESTION

Hi Alexandra,

Last Thursday there was a very strong smell of burning plastic [at work]. The school sent out the AC specialists who thought it was the belt, or burnt out motor. They turned the AC off for hours and the smell [was] persistant. I had to go home because the smell made me nauseated, gave me a headache and irritated my throat and lungs.

It wasn’t just me but all the students who were here that day.

One specialist thought it was the monitors heating up. But when on Friday someone suggested it was the HUGE curtains we have hanging (pvc looking and OLD), he asked me if I wanted to smell it.

When I did I vomited all over the place.

So, we took down the curtains after they brought a can to measure the air toxicity level in the room.

Do you by any chance have any suggestions about what to do now? Send the curtains for testing? Should I get a lung test? Any ideas on who might know?

I know you must be very busy, but if you have the time I would really appreciate any advice.

Thank you,

S.

THE ANSWER

Dear S.,

Sounds horrid.

Is the smell gone? What did the air toxicity test show? If the curtains remain down and were the problem, they should be gotten rid of–why bother testing them. Ventilation is important — open windows if you can. Does the school have any (industrial) air purifiers? Or fans?

I’d say get rid of the curtains entirely and if the smell is gone then you’re good. I’m not a doctor but I don’t think a lung test is needed if the smell was a one time thing and you’re no longer feeling sick.

There are environmental experts who come in and test air and that is what I’d suggest but it sounds like [the school] already did those tests. If the smell remains, push to get the results of the test and ask them to remove the curtains.

Best,

Alexandra