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Recycling Tree Shelters – Part of the Solution

27 October 2021

Recycling Tree Shelters – Part of the Solution

For every topic – whether it be who is the world’s greatest footballer or how much inflation is likely to rise in the coming year – there will always be a wide variety of opinions. Even the ‘experts’ on any particular subject do not always agree.

When it comes to environmental matters, however, there are seemingly two things on which practically everyone is in agreement – planting trees is good, and plastics are bad!

Yet with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommending that an increase of one billion hectares of woodland will be necessary to limit global warming to 1.5oC by 2050, the fact is that plastic tree shelters are going to play a key role in achieving this.

While it may sound strange to read that plastic is part of an environmental solution, this really is the case. If the loop is closed on plastic – which is something we are working towards at pace – the material has been proved to benefit the young saplings we all want to see grow into healthy and long-living trees.

“The most sustainable choice of tree shelters is one that is manufactured from plastic containing recycled material and recycled at its end-of-life”

What’s more, in doing this, tree shelters can also contribute to the move towards a circular economy because, as we are now demonstrating with our recently-launched and first of its kind Tubex Collection and Recycling Programme, tree shelters can be recycled and used to make new shelters.

Most important, this is backed by independent data. A recent LCA study* conducted in the UK showed, that contrary to what some might believe, the most sustainable choice of tree shelters is one that is manufactured from plastic containing recycled material and recycled at its end-of-life. Our Tubex Standard tree shelters are the only ones in the market able to offer this, currently incorporating up to 40% recycled content and being recycled through our closed loop recycling scheme. Our product development team is now working on ongoing enhancements that means we will eventually be producing them in 100% recycled plastic to fully close the loop.

Nevertheless, even before this, plastic tree shelters were already proving a sustainable option in the effective protection of trees. The LCA study modelled the rate of tree losses during their first five years at around 50% without the use of tree shelters. If this figure already sounds high, it is actually another case of expert opinion differing – our own experiences have found instances where losses have been above 80%, whereas the use of our tree shelters achieve survival rates that are consistently above 90%.

In addition, although the study maintains that a 50% tree loss has marginally less overall environmental impact than using a tree shelter, as we increase our recycled content the difference becomes even more negligible – particularly if you consider that the LCA study does not consider the environmental impact of other forms of protection, such as fencing, that may be required in order to afford the trees some protection, particularly from browsing animals.

 “The LCA study modelled the rate of tree losses during their first five years at around 50% without the use of tree shelters”

Cost-wise, even a 50% loss is a huge amount to bear in any industry; and with the current tree sapling shortage post-Brexit in the UK, such a large reduction in trees that are able to grow successfully is going to make the government’s target of increasing tree planting rates across the country to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025 more difficult to achieve.

It is worth remembering why most environmental experts set such store by tree planting. According to the LCA study 3,250kg of CO2 are captured by a tree in 50 years. As we have calculated that the manufacture of a virgin Tubex tree shelter produces around 0.44kg of CO2, meaning  this figure will be  even smaller if we take into account  the up to 40% recycled content currently in each one, this would seem to make the use of shelters a good environmental investment.

Further to this, our tree shelters not only provide effective protection from animals, pesticides and herbicides, they also create an ideal microclimate that supports increased growth and stronger roots, both of which are critical in the early establishment of the tree. The microclimate is equally beneficial to saplings in periods of drought, another advantage that helps to counter our changing weather patterns.

Introducing the collection and recycling of tree shelters will enhance all their sustainable benefits even more. By collecting the tubes when they have done their valuable work, we are ensuring their correct and safe disposal, putting them to good use through recycling, minimising our use of resources and virgin materials, and helping to protect and improve the overall forest environment.

Consideration of the forest environment is also an essential element in the selection of the appropriate tree shelter and has been the overriding consideration in our current new product development process. Despite the most sustainable choice of tree shelters being one that is manufactured from recycled plastic and recycled at its end-of-life, it is important that these are used in places that are easy to access for the collection of the tree shelters once their job is done.

“Less than 10% of the 125 million new trees planted in 2020 required tree shelters”

However, trees are also planted in dense or difficult to access areas that make the collection process challenging. For this reason, we have now introduced our biodegradable Tubex Nature tree shelter**. It is non-toxic and made from bio-based materials, meaning that the shelters can be left in situ. Once the trees become strong enough to exist on their own, the tree shelters will naturally biodegrade over time, although we recommend mulching or burying them at their end of life to speed up the process.

Another important consideration is when to use tree shelters in the first place, given that they are not always needed or recommended. Indeed, it is estimated that less than 10% of the 125 million new trees planted in 2020 required tree shelters – but that was enough to save around 12.5 million trees during the year.

There is perhaps one other area where experts in every field agree – there is usually no one right answer or solution to a particular problem. The challenges of climate change are multi-faceted, but planting trees is part of the solution and plastic tree shelters with recycled content can play their part in ensuring that fewer trees are wasted in the process. And by collecting and recycling the shelters, their contribution can be never-ending.

Find out more about our Tubex Collection and Recycling Programme here.

Notes

*Chau, C., Paulillo, A., Lu, N., Miodownik, M. and Lettieri, P., 2021. The environmental performance of protecting seedlings with plastic tree shelters for afforestation in temperate oceanic regions: A UK case study. Science of The Total Environment, 791, p.148239.

**Currently under testing for ISO:17556 Soil Biodegradability.

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