Where did tinsel come from? Its origins are murky, but it was apparently first made in Germany during the 1600's. It was made by hammering out a paper thin silver alloy and then cutting that into strips. It's unlikely that this first version was as thin as what it is today. It was used, not only on Christmas Trees (which were just catching on in Germany) but also on any other decoration that needed a little shine from statues to fireplace garlands. Since candlelight, lanterns and fireplaces were the primary method of lighting homes, reflective surfaces were often used to maximize the light.a
The early stuff was meant to be reused, carefully gathered from the trees and decoration to be used again the next year. Unfortunately, silver-based metals tend to tarnish when they aren't used or aren't kept next to the skin (some claim it was the candlelight that tarnished them, but simple disuse could do the same). Cheaper alloys were introduced that also had the added benefit of not tarnishing, but were too heavy for their function. Early tinsels were all made out of metal and were expensive and fragile to use as decoration. Until the early 1900's, using the glittery decoration was a status symbol.
In the 1920's the cheaply made aluminum based tinsels made it affordable for everyone. By the 50's the aluminized paper used to make it, became a fire hazard when coupled with copious lights, decorations and dry Christmas trees. Today, it's mostly made from PVC-that's Polyvinyl Chloride. PVC is a controversial vinyl used in many products. It's difficult to recycle and there have been questions about the toxicity because it must be mixed with toxic additives to be of any use.
Besides being made out of PVC, there are a host of reasons not to use tinsel today. First, I know of none of the market today that's biodegradable. We're talking about using something that's highly disposable in large quantities for brief decorative use. Another reason not to use tinsel is that no tree recycling program will take trees loaded with tinsel. You have to take all of it off. If they are using the trees for mulch, the tinsel will lower the quality of the mulch because it doesn't biodegrade.
Those with pets or very small children should also look for tinsel alternatives. Cats like to eat the stuff. Most of the time this is amusing, but it can kill them. Tinsel can't be digested and can tear up the intestinal tract. You also can't vacuum if there's any tinsel on your floor. Instead you have to make sure that every stand is off the carpet before vacuuming. Otherwise you could end up with a broken vacuum.
If you do use Tinsel
Less is more. Don't over do things by loading the tree down. Instead allot yourself a small amount of tinsel and use it sparingly all over the tree.
Reuse your tinsel. Strip the tree as much as you can and place it in a box to be reused. One box could last several years if used the right way.
Popcorn Strings-A classic DIY project, you just need popped corn, a needle and thread and some time.
Glitter Spray-Use some safe glitter spray to give your tree a little glitz.
Ribbons-A few well placed curly metallic ribbons tied to the outside of the tree will be easier to remove but can also add the sparkle you're looking for. While metallic ribbons aren't biodegradable either, you might end up using less of them.