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Key learnings from our tree guard recycling pilot scheme in Dorset

Project partner Queen Mary University of London has recently piloted a tree guard disposal scheme following an invite to work in partnership with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group in South West England (FWAG SW)  The Dorset-based pilot provided tree planters in the county with an opportunity to drop-off tree guards no longer in use. This also ensured enough tree guards were collected to make pick-up and recycling worthwhile for a waste collector.

The scheme was promoted through personal contacts and via FWAG SW E-News and website, as well as on FWAG SW and QMUL social media. Interested participants were directed to register using an online form, which offered a choice of 2 drop off dates during March and April. At sign-up, guidance was provided on the types and cleanliness of guards accepted for recycling and with optional guidance on how to prepare tree guards for reuse so as to minimise contamination.

A local farm with a weigh bridge was used as the collection point for both days, with the tree guards stored in Solway bags that held around 400 tree guards for processing by a waste service provider. The sacks were shredded and compressed into bales for transportation to a UK based processing plant that will create tough composite boards that can be used for a wide range of applications including stock fencing, shop fittings, shelters, furniture, and garden planters.

Over the course of the two days 20 Solway bags were filled for recycling (28 cubic meters), weighing in at a total of 1200kg. We estimate this was equivalent to 3000 – 6000 tree guards.

The trial also facilitated the reuse of around 500 tree guards. Although this involved some additional work to clean the guards and minimise risk around bio-security, extending the life of the tree guards has a much lower environmental impact than recycling, and offers a welcome cost-saving benefit to the community groups and landowners who were able to make use of the guards.

Key Learnings

  • Identifying people who were able to drop-off tree-guards was a challenge within the available timeframe. Personal networks proved to be an effective way to engage with potential stakeholders and helped to build momentum for the pilot.
  • Over two-thirds of tree guards dropped off came from just three organisations. It seems probable the viability of a plastic tree guard reuse and recycling scheme will be dependent on developing a network that includes those with a regular turnover of large numbers of tree guards. This will ensure enough material is available for reuse, and for removal and recycling by a waste collector.
  • Based on feedback from those who engaged with the pilot, there was a lot of support for this trial to develop into an on-going recycling and reuse scheme.
  • Participants that engaged with the pilot were already operating in an environmentally sensitive manor and although there was a positive response from NGOs engagement with the wider tree planting community may have been lacking. To engage more fully and increase the size of the participant network the scheme would need to operate regularly and become an established yearly event.
  • Working with a range of stakeholders proved to be a highly effective solution to promote the scheme and develop the capacity and demand to reuse tree guards that were in a suitable condition.
  • Participants were open to the idea of paying a small fee to be able to recycle their tree guards in the future, especially if it was less than the cost of commercial waste disposal.
  • There was more demand for reuse than we were anticipating as saplings are widely available but funding to protect them is not. Future opportunities may lie in finding a way to link those wishing to dispose of tree guards with those wishing to reuse. Or, in charging a fee for reusing tree guards to help cover operating costs of a reuse scheme. However, feedback indicated that facilitating reuse by providing tree guards in a suitable condition will create considerably more uptake than if it is left for tree planters to arrange between themselves. This also highlights an issue with how to assess which tree guards are in a suitable condition for reuse.
  • Estimating the number and condition of tree guards prior to the drop-off days was also a challenge, with some participants delivering significantly more tree guards than they had estimated in the sign-up form.
  • Delivering the Solway bags to participants ahead of the drop off days made processing much easier as it ensured tree guards were ready for the waste collector and helped to reduce time spent on loading Solway bags at the drop—off point.

Some of the tree guards had been stored or left in situ for long periods (10 years plus). Participants reported this was because no suitable facilities for disposal or recycling had been identified. With government targets for tree planting set to increase to a rate of 30,000 hectares per year by March 2025, use of plastic tree guards are likely to increase in tandem, particularly if competitive alternatives are not available. Therefore, providing facilities to recycle those currently in the environment and to meet future demand, will be imperative to ensure tree planting does not result in widespread microplastic pollution, a problem that may take years to become apparent.

In addition to the pilot-recycling scheme, Queen Mary and FWAG-SW have engaged with national stakeholders including NGOs, conservation organisations and landowners that are interested in delivering end-of -life solutions for tree guards.

To establish the level of demand for these solutions, a short survey has been developed that will inform future end-of life initiatives, share your thoughts here.