One December, I sold Christmas trees at a landscape nursery outside Chicago. As a high school job, it had a number of things going for it: the smell of Christmas trees, customers who tipped, lighter-than-they-looked bundled trees that I could plop onto minivans and SUVs, and the deep satisfaction of working with twine.
Red and green tags affixed to each tree explained that, while they grew, the trees provided oxygen, habitats for animals, and temporary greenery somewhere in Canada (a Maritime Province, I think). As a 16-year-old, I blithely accepted the growers' claims. When I looked into the environmental footprint of real Christmas trees recently, I figured I'd find some awful consequences. Naturally, there are reasons to consider organic trees. But aside from trucking the things from Nova Scotia or some other far-flung location, the practice doesn't seem to be as bad as I had feared.
Here's what Treehugger.com says:
Go chop down a tree. Really, we mean it. An artificial Christmas tree might seem like the greener option, since no real tree is being destroyed and it can be reused year after year. But they're usually made of PVC, and our local recycling center certainly doesn't have a bin for old PVC trees (Grist has more on the dangers of artificial trees). Christmas tree farms, on the other hand, have sustainability built into the business: when you cart your tree off for trimming, they'll plant another one to sell a few years down the line. In the meantime it'll be turning carbon dioxide into oxygen and providing habitats for animals. At least, that's the simple version of things. In actual fact... many tree farmers use harmful pesticides and other chemicals, so it's worth calling ahead to see if you can find a local organic grower. Buying from a local farm also means the trees haven't been hauled cross-country in a CO2-belching truck.
The Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association lists Washington state growers, if you're interested in buying locally.
West Seattle Blog reports on a charitable tree program in its neighborhood.