Using trees to protect trees

21 January 2021
Using trees to protect trees

There are over three trillion trees on the planet which not only play a vital role in producing the oxygen we breathe, but also absorb the carbon dioxide emissions we produce. Trees store carbon, making woodland soil rich in organic materials as a result. In addition, forests provide rich habitat for our wildlife. This means the protection of existing trees and the planting of new ones is crucial to tackling the climate crisis and protecting our ecosystem.

Tree cover in the UK is far lower than its closest neighbours – just 13% compared to the European average of 38%. The UK plants approximately 45 million trees every year, mostly for commercial use. The UK government has pledged to more than double the number of trees planted annually, with a target of 90-120 million trees a year necessary for the country to achieve its aim of being carbon net-zero by 2050.

Tree shelters are essential for the growth and development of trees. They guard and protect saplings, enabling them to grow safely. Without tree shelters, between 25-90% of newly planted trees would die.

While tree shelters are crucial to nurture a tree, traditional products pose a serious environmental issue. At the end of their lifetime, tree shelters are often left in the environment rather than being collected. Around 16 million tree shelters are left across the UK every year, resulting in an estimated 2,500 tonnes of plastic ending up in the natural environment and ecosystem.

There is a better, more sustainable solution: a new generation of biodegradable tree shelters made from our bioplastics. In partnership with Suregreen and University of Bangor, we have developed a bio-based product which is naturally broken down by soil bacteria over several years, leaving behind only CO2, water and a few naturally occurring minerals. The tree shelters are made from biodegradable polymers, some of which are novel and being used in a commercial application for the first time.

The polymers used are bio-based and biodegradable. Some of these represent the results of over six years and £6.5 million of direct investment in R&D collaboration with several UK leading universities. A number of these polymers are derived from lignin, an organic material that comes from the very trees we aim to protect. The polymers used in this particular project are partly based on furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) monomeric building blocks.

“The UK government has pledged to double the amount of tree planting over the next few years. To support this, we need tree shelters that break down naturally at the end of their working lives and return harmlessly to the soil.” (Paul Mines, CEO Biome Bioplastics)

By undergoing extensive laboratory testing using Accelerated Weather Aging which mimics real weather such as rain, heat and UV radiation, we were able to produce a flexible but sturdy material that can fulfil its job of protecting the trees. The next stage is to begin real-world field testing. We’re manufacturing 20,000 bio-based tree shelters with our partner Suregreen. These will be planted along with new trees in multiple sites across the UK, implemented with partners such as Scottish Woodlands, Woodland Trust and Tilhill Forestry.

We are excited to be contributing to the sustainable reforestation of our home and be working towards an environmentally friendly solution for tree-planting projects around the world.

Learn more about the project.