Plastic Free Planting - The Plastic Tree Guard Revolution
Do plastic tree guards contribute to plastic pollution? Is using a plastic tree guard sustainable? What is the environmental impact of using a plastic tree guard for planting trees? These were some of the questions that I pondered as I was planting young trees back in 2019, on the brink of deciding my dissertation topic for my masters and starting my new role as a conservation ranger...
For decades, the tree planting process has included an immature tree, cane or stake, and a tree guard/shelter. As the use of modern synthetic plastics grew in popularity from their development around 100 years ago, it was no surprise that in the 1980’s tree guard manufacturers began creating these shelters out of plastic. Strong, resilient, protective- the perfect shield for a young tree against damage, browsing animals such as deer, squirrels and rabbits, and bad weather. They can also provide additional benefits to the adolescent tree, including providing a mini greenhouse around the base, helping to channel growth upwards, reduce space invading vegetation and reduce moisture stress. The demand for tree guards came from the need for more tree coverage and the increased browsing pressure on these trees through loss of key species in our environments.
They do the job of protecting young trees well, but the latest scientific evidence on the harm that plastics can cause in our marine and terrestrial environments raises the question: can these guards be polluting newly planted woodlands? This is a question that has only recently come into the foreground.
Each year in the UK alone, we plant millions of trees through governmental projects, NGO’s, organisations, as private landowners, and the general public. Most of these trees will be planted using tree guards, and the number of new trees is only set to increase further in coming years. Most organisations or landowners do have the intentions of removing and disposing of the guards when the tree becomes of age, but in many circumstances this can be difficult, if not impossible. This can be because the tree density becomes impenetrable to reach the tree guard or there is limited resources and labour available to bring them in.
If removed, they are often either 1) re-used for other trees or 2) sent-off to be recycled. Guards are rarely recycled as it is currently an expensive and limited option. Re-using tree guards can also pose a threat, as they could have already began degrading and are at risk of being left on the new tree indefinitely. Unfortunately, most removed guards end up being buried, burnt, or sent to landfill - all of which are not sustainable options. The other potential impact of tree guards, which you may have seen on your rambles, is the guards protruding into the trunk of the tree. Guards are designed to be removed or break away from the stem as the tree grows. Sometimes this does not happen successfully, and the tree ends up growing around or into the guard, which can cause irregular tree growth and potentially other under-investigated issues.
Manufacturers are moving away from general plastics and branching out to other materials. The issue to watch out for with this can be greenwashing. This is a term used for organisations and individuals to present themselves or their product as environmentally responsible, falsely suggesting an environmental benefit. This can mean you purchase a product believing you are making a sustainable or ethical choice- when in reality this could not be the case. Some plastics do technically biodegrade, meaning they can be sold as biodegradable, although this does not change the timeline they take to break down and the environmental issues they can cause during this degrading period. A few buzz words to be aware of include: Green, Eco, Biodegradable, Chemical-free, Compostable, Eco-friendly, Clean, All Natural, Non-Toxic & many more.
There are also bio-plastic tree guard options available. This means that they are not traditional oil based plastics, but are formed using biological substances rather than from petroleum. An example of this is corn starch. These guards are a step in the right direction and removes a significant carbon footprint from manufacturing, but still come with questions. Many bio-plastic tree guards are sold as compostable, but need to be sent to specialised industrial composting plants to do this. This continues the added efforts and costs after the tree no longer needs the guard, and many specialist composting sites have yet to be created. Other alternative materials used in tree guards on the market include kraft board/cardboard, metal, and even sheep wool and oil from cashew nut shells. As is expected, these alternative products come with a higher price tag than traditional plastic tree guards.
The issues of plastic tree guards went unknown for a long time, but now we know the importance of plastic pollution and the dangers of plastic tree guards we can do something about it. If you are interested in an alternative way of planting trees you can try 1) using a more natural approach to sapling protection such as using brash or scrub as a browsing deterrent, 2) using no guards in low browsing areas and planting double the number of trees, 3) fencing off the planting area, or 4) using non- plastic trees guards.
I have found a strong passion in getting this topic spoken about since undertaking my MSc thesis investigating tree guard plastic fragmentation and I hope to help people become more aware of what we can do to change how we plant trees in the future. I hope this blog post has highlighted this current issue and has provided some solutions to help in our tree planting journeys to grow our native woodlands and wild spaces within the UK.
Thank you for reading.
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