If you haven’t already seen my latest two blogs on plastics in tree planting on our NNRs then check them out to get up to speed! This blog is the last in this series and has a slightly cheerier outlook as it covers possible solutions to avoid and reduce plastic pollution in tree planting.
If we follow the waste hierarchy of the three Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle – then we should start by trying to reduce the number of tree guards used in the first place, to mitigate the risk of them polluting the environment. But is this feasible? Forestry and Land Scotland say that only 1.6% of trees that they plant annually actually require tree guards. So when planting new trees it’s important to consider if guards are essential or not, taking into account tree species, browsing pressure and other vulnerability factors. Some tree species are more vulnerable to browsing by deer, such as oaks and aspen, whilst others have relatively low vulnerability, like hawthorn and Sitka spruce. Also, in areas with high deer densities trees may require more protection than in other areas, and in certain scenarios fencing may be an appropriate method of tree protection.
In situations where tree guards are essential, and offer the best method of protection, the next best option would be to reuse old tree guards. I’m a lover of all things vintage and second-hand but when it comes to tree guards, repurposing ‘pre-loved’ plastic becomes a bit complicated. As guards are typically left on for a period of 5-10 years before collection, they may have already started breaking down and depositing harmful microplastics into the soil during their first use. Reusing them would simply cause them to breakdown even further. So as it stands, reusing standard plastic tree guards isn’t really an option. But if you are planting on a small scale in your garden why not try reusing plastic bottles to create a homemade tree guard – saving on money whilst re-purposing single use plastics!
Finally, the last resort is to recycle them – which can be done – YAY! At the moment you can recycle tree guards with Agri.cycle – great news! This is a scheme where you pay per bag filled but unfortunately there are no collection points in Scotland yet, meaning there would be added mileage for the guards to reach the recycling centre. This is often the case with unusual recyclables, such as cigarette butts, that are only accepted by a small number of schemes. And it creates a bit of a dilemma – is it better to send them to landfill to break down over decades and decades or to rack up the extra road miles? Maybe if there were enough discarded guards being collected to justify the journey? Unfortunately I don’t have the answer yet, but removing them from our landscapes to protect nature is definitely a start!
However, none of the options provided by the three R waste hierarchy really tackle the route of the problem as there is still the risk of plastic tree guards being discarded and left to break down. The best option is to avoid plastic altogether and opt for a compostable alternative. And as usual some clever people are already onto it! Many of the alternatives are made from cardboard-like fibres and are 100% compostable – have a look at these two options – here and here. The jury is still out on how well some of them handle the Scottish weather but I am confident that in the future we could say goodbye to plastics in tree planting all together!
So back to Blawhorn Moss NNR where this all started… At the moment we are weighing up the cost of recycling the tree guards and the mileage they will travel to be recycled, bearing in mind the quantity that we picked up. Maybe in the future when we have collected more of them it will be worth recycling them through the Agri.cycle scheme.
But for now I am hopeful that those in the industry are waking up and taking more responsibility – even since I started writing this series of blogs there has been increased coverage of the issue – check out this BBC article on the topic.
And let us know your thoughts by commenting below!