Planting trees without plastic tree guards should be standard practice, a UK study has found, as leading conservation charities and landowners seek sustainable alternatives to reduce plastic waste.
The Woodland Trust has announced it is aiming to stop using plastic tree guards by the end of the year. It is trialling plastic-free options at its Avoncliff site in Wiltshire, including cardboard and British wool. The charity plans to plant 10 million trees each year until 2025.
“As one of the nation’s largest tree planters, by committing to go plastic-free in terms of the use of tree shelters, we are set to be the trailblazers in this field — catalyzing a permanent change to the tree-planting world,” Woodland Trust CEO Darren Moorcroft said.
Since the 1970s, saplings have generally been planted in translucent plastic tubes to protect them from being eaten by browsing animals.
However, the research — which analyzed the lifecycle of the plastic and trees — found it was better to lose a certain percentage of saplings than use plastic guards to protect them.
This is because there are significant carbon emissions from the manufacture of the guards, and they are rarely collected after use, meaning they break down into microplastics, polluting the natural environment and harming wildlife.
“Mass planting of trees to fulfil the net zero targets could therefore entail a substantial amount of plastic tree shelters to be manufactured and left unrecovered in the environment,” said the study, published in Science of the Total Environment.
On average, 85 percent of trees with shelters survive, while 50 percent survive if no shelter is used, scientists found.
This means to get one tree to the point of being established at five years, surviving into adulthood, you would have to plant 1.18 trees if using shelters and two trees without shelters.
Rather than using tree guards to obtain a higher survival rate of saplings, scientists concluded that it was better for the environment to go plastic-free.
Best practice depends on location, and in areas with very high levels of damage by grazing animals such as rabbits, deer and sheep, the study found it was better to use tree guards.
“Start with the premise you’re not going to use plastic tree guards. Use them if it’s the only feasible way to protect the trees in that location,” said professor Mark Miodownik from University College London and one of the paper’s authors.
“We have an established practice of using tree guards and we couldn’t find any real evidence where anyone had carefully calculated the impacts of either scenario. Now we’ve done it, and what we showed is that you can manage the land in a different way,” he said.
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