Plastic Free Woodlands, UK

Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust (YDMT) cares for the people, landscape and wildlife of the Dales and helps everyone to appreciate and enjoy this special place.

Plastic guards are critical to enabling young trees to survive and thrive – acting as mini greenhouses and providing protection from browsing animals, weeds and herbicides until the tree is fully established. Following many decades of tree planting up and down the UK, there are now millions of plastic tree tubes littering the landscapes, most of which are made from single-use plastic. These disintegrate into smaller fragments and find their way into the soils and waterways.  With UK Government commitments to plant an extra 30 million trees a year, this problem will only get worse over time. There are biodegradable alternatives to the plastic tree guard, but none yet that are financially viable, compostable and can effectively protect saplings for the required amount of time.   This project will remove redundant tree guards over 8 hectares for reuse or recycling, engage communities and volunteers in tackling the problem, and plant 7,000 trees in 5 woodlands to trial alternatives to the plastic tree guard.  It will also seek a sustainable solution through sector-wide collaboration, disseminating conclusions and recommendations nationally at the end of the trial.

The Update

The project has been highly success, as is evident in their final report.

Alternative shelters were installed at nine sites across the Yorkshire Dales and Nidderdale as they trialled different tree shelters for their effectiveness in their drive to reduce the use of plastic in forestry. An additional site was left as a natural regeneration trial. The alternative types of shelters used included cardboard based, and bio-based – made from cotton and pine resin, an earlier sheeps wool prototype and others based on sugar cane. Spiral and bioplastic shelters were effective, although there were remaining questions about what happens to bioplastics and they degrade, plus they are single use. Cardboard shelters were less sturdy and needed extra work to ensure they were effective. The conclusion was that one size does not fit all scenarios – if the site is upland or lowland, grazed or browse all affect the decision on if alternatives will be effective – and tree planters should always consider future efforts needed if you use plastic. In total, this project planted 11,165 trees over 8.6 ha through this trial. Other products will be trailed over the coming years.

YDMT engaged over 200 volunteers over 14 volunteering days to clear over 6000 redundant tree shelters on their sites.  In total, they collected an estimated 38,000 plastic tree shelters at 3 collection hubs they established for recycling through Tubex. This action brought volunteers, community groups and landowners together to tackle the issue on land owned by various land owners.

A real highlight from this project, and one that will leave a very positive legacy has been the creation of these central collection points for redundant tree shelters.  In total, they have now collected an estimated 233,500 plastic tree shelters at 6 collection hubs in three national parks. The project has shown that recycling is a real cost-effective option -provided there is the human resources available to remove the shelters.  YDMT are committed to continue this tree shelter collection and recycling work beyond the end of this project and to date (end 2023), there are 17 hubs across the country, thanks to the legacy of this project. The establishment of the Forest Plastics Working Group (FPWG) during this project has enabled YDMT to work with a ranged of organisations to address the issue of plastic in forests nationwide. They have also helped to formulate best practice with the Environment Agency and share it across the industry as this is the first UK tree shelter recycling scheme to be established.  FPWG will continue to advocate and facilitate good practice around the use of plastic in forestry, research and share information on tree shelter alternatives, and promote the environmental benefits that result from forestry and forest management.

The project report that this couldn’t have happened without EOCA’s support – and that they are proud to have worked with EOCA and of the legacy we have developed together.

Image: The size of the problem ....