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Can I Buy a Biodegradable Tree Tube?

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Can I Buy a Biodegradable Tree Tube?

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There’s been a lot of buzz in the media over the past year about the damage that plastic tree tubes do to our landscape, but are there actually any good alternatives?

Why do we need tree tubes anyway?

The very species that we love to see in the countryside – deer, hare and voles – are a menace to tree establishment. They gnaw away at the bark of saplings, which reduces their likelihood of survival in the crucial first years of establishment. While fencing can keep some of these animals away, it’s also very costly and impacts animal movement across the countryside. This movement or ‘dispersal’ helps spread seeds and nutrients and promotes breeding across populations, which protects animals and plants against extinction.

What’s wrong with tree tubes?

Tree tubes or ‘tree shelters’ are great for getting trees established – they’re quick to install, simply slotting over a tree and being staked into the ground. But they need to be removed after about 5 years, which is just when many trees hit a bushy, impenetrable stage that makes their removal very difficult. As a result, tree tubes are typically left to fall apart in the environment (Chau et al 2021), which not only has the potential to damage the tree, but also leads to plastic pollution.

Tree shelters shed microplastics

Tree tubes are one of the culprits when it comes to microplastics – tiny fragments of plastic that are found throughout the natural world (Chau et al 2021). Some of the risks of these microplastics may have been overstated, according Nature – although some damage is caused to ocean life. However, the effects on humans at current levels of pollution haven’t yet been studied and microplastics may stick around for centuries.

Deer on rewilding project

Roe deer - a 'menace to trees' on the field at my own rewilding project.

Where I come in…

I’m planting trees on my 3.5 acre rewilding plot to improve the diversity of tree species and the structure of the habitat (see ‘The 3 D’s of Rewilding’) on this degraded pasture. Naturally, I wanted to avoid the nasty plastic plant tubes, but after many hours of research, and questioning a few experts, I came away disappointed. It turns out that, despite all the buzz in the press, there simply aren’t any proven alternatives out there right now which are commercially available.

Why are transparent tubes best?

A tree tube acts like a mini greenhouse, warming the growing tree and protecting it against damage from herbivores. Forestry Commission research found that solid material shelters which let in less than 55% of light resulted in weak trunk growth (‘etiolation’), leaving the tree more vulnerable to subsequent damage from wind or herbivores. Lower light levels also resulted in lower survival rates of certain species in the study. Another study (Oliet et al 2021) found that trees put on more growth in clearer tubes which let more light through, even in a bright Mediterranean environment.

What’s wrong with losing a few trees?

Solid, biodegradable tubes made of card or other fibres simply don’t provide most trees with the conditions they need to thrive. Heavy fibre tubes are not only impractical for carrying around large sites, they also fail to mimic trees’ natural growing conditions – even on the forest floor a substantial amount of light reaches the ground in Spring. And remember that each time a sapling dies, the resources required to grow and plant the tree, and manufacture a tree tube are wasted. The Forestry Commission found that, when light levels dropped below 30% at the base of the tube, a third of Beech saplings died.

The promising future of tree tubes

At the end of my search, I was left with mixed feelings; although decent biodegradable tree tubes aren’t currently available, the future is right around the corner. There are two promising tubes coming onto the market which are both transparent and biodegradable without creating microplastics under natural conditions. 

I tried to get access to these products, but the brand new ‘Tubex 12D‘ or ‘Tubex Nature‘ is out of stock everywhere and Suregreen’s Vigilis-Bio is in a trial phase (find out more about the trial here). On another promising note, Tubex is rolling out a large-scale recycling programme for its legacy plastic tubes, to try and reduce their environmental impact – find out more here.

References

Chau, Charnett, et al. “The Environmental Performance of Protecting Seedlings with Plastic Tree Shelters for Afforestation in Temperate Oceanic Regions: a UK Case Study.” Science of The Total Environment (2021): 148239.

Oliet, Juan A., et al. “Light Transmissivity of Tree Shelters Interacts with Site Environment and Species Ecophysiology to Determine Outplanting Performance in Mediterranean Climates.” Land 10.7 (2021): 753.

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