Every year before Christmas, newsrooms in cruise mode revive the great Real Tree vs Plastic Tree debate. Every year as Hannukah kicks off, my college room-mate attempts to understand why so many goy insist on killing a fir tree every year. After all, Jesus only killed a fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22), and didn't do it again every year.
In terms of appeal, fake trees win only among the extremely fastidious and the lazy, for whom cleaning up a few needles is too much of an imposition, so the articles in recent years have often focused on the environmental aspect of the debate. Initially, the ersatz Tannenaum contingent had the upper hand, asserting that cutting a tree down every year damaged forests, whereas plastic trees last forever.
But nearly all live (then dead) trees now come from farms like this one, just outside of Olympia. People like me come and cut trees, and the farmer plants more. A recent study shows that if the tree farmers don't kill the groundcover plants between trees, such farms are good for carbon sequestration--not as good as a forest, but still significantly better than fields of annual crops or pasture lands (and bonus: no cattle farts), which is what most Christmas tree farms were previously.
In my case--recognizing that this will not be true in all parts of the country--there's the added benefit that the round trip to get the tree consumed less than a gallon of gas. Plus, I'm supporting the local economy, helping a farmer make ends meet, and helping forestall the loss of farmland to development. Because this is an ongoing operation, new trees replacing old every year, it's a relatively stable habitat for birds, deer, and other critters that like something between grassland and forest. No, it's not pristine, but it has some ecological value, and it beats the hell out of a lot of the alternatives.
Meanwhile, fake trees are made of petrochemicals and metal ripped from the earth, processed in factories that consume more oil and create toxic waste, packaged in cardboard boxes (killing trees! the horror) and more plastic, and shipped from China the trucked to your locality. The carbon footprint is large, and the sequestration value zero. If these trees lasted forever, the footprint might be amortized, but fake trees make their way into landfills, not from generation to generation.
[A Digression: The same goes for ornaments on the tree. If you are stingy and nostalgic like I was this year, then you have ornaments that have somehow stayed out of landfills for decades. A bunch are made from Christmas cards and chicken pot pie tins recycled when I was in second grade, waylaid from the waste stream for twoscore years.]
All this should be famliar to those of you who reard or read reports on the Real vs Fake theme before Christmas, but what about after? Fake ones go back in a box or into the garbage, so making them less environmentally harmful is a matter of holding on for as long as possible before trashing them.
For real trees, the environmental impact can vary a lot depending on what you do after the holidays. At one end of the spectrum, you could burn it. Torching a dry fir can be a great show, but it exhales the carbon it breathed in from the atmosphere for years right back into the air in a few minutes. You could douse the flame before it consumes the wood and bury the charcoal, in which case the carbon could stick around for tens of thousands of years.
Many counties and municipalities have programs to mulch Christmas trees. Olympia even comes around to pick them up. The chipped trees become mulch in parks and in some cases may be sold or given to citizens; this extends the useful life of the tree, provides a local source of mulch with a lower cost and fuel use, and ends up in the soil. Sequestration time varies depending on conditions and from needle to branch to bole, but again something is better than nothing, and the breakdown feeds soil microbes, fungi, arthropods, and so on--it is carbon recycling, not emission.
I'm stingy with biomass, and would no sooner give the city my tree than I would my compost. At some point in January, I take the tree outside, stand and all. This being the maritime Northwest, it can stay there looking green and alive until April or May, and in years past I have placed to to seem like part of the landscaping. Some years, as Spring comes round, I cut off the boughs and lay them among the blueberries as a nice acidic mulch; I may come back the next year and toss the skeletal branches aside. The trunk gets tossed in back for the native blackberries to clamber over, and eventually to return to the soil. Other years, I remove the stand and toss the whole tree in back. Birds hide in it, berries climb through, and the soil beneath gets better year by year.
I rationalize habitually, but in this case I really do think that my choice of tree and my treatment of it after the holidays is as good a way to go environmentally as most of the alternatives. A live tree, planted out after Christmas, would be better, but I don't own any ground to plant in, and I don't know many people who have the space to do that year after year. No tree at all could be better, maybe, but it sounds like no fun. Besides, I want my local tree farm to stay in business.