This Is Plastics: Reflecting on the Role of Plastics on Arbor Day


Reflecting on the Role of Plastics on Arbor Day

Plastics play an important role in protecting forested land by keeping more trees alive and helping new trees survive – safeguarding the overall wellbeing of our environment.


In March 2021, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the USDA Forest Service will invest more than $218 million to fund projects under the Great American Outdoors Act to conserve critical forest and wetland habitat. Tapping into the Land and Water Conservation Fund established by Congress allows the Forest Service to put more than $94 million toward administering the Forest Legacy Program. As the name suggests, projects under this program preserve and protect tens of thousands of acres of woodland territory across the country, including the Ceylon Forest in Georgia and Kootenai Forestlands in Montana.

While federal preservation programs are one way to safeguard our nation’s natural heritage, this Arbor Day, let’s celebrate the role plastics play in protecting forested land.

Plastics Keep More Trees Alive

Recycled plastic lumber is increasingly replacing traditional wood lumber and becoming a more environmentally friendly option. Recycled plastic lumber is derived from recovered plastic waste—oftentimes, used water bottles and plastic egg cartons—to create a product that acts as a green alternative for wood or other construction materials, like concrete or metal.

There’s not a single, universal type of plastic lumber, and this range of products gives further flexibility to building and construction projects. Sustainable manufacturers, like Tangent, produce high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic lumber that is made up of 95% recycled HDPE, which often comes from used milk jugs and juice containers. This grade of plastic lumber tends to resemble thinner pieces of wood, such as plywood, and is best suited for landscape and decking projects.

For sturdier solutions, manufacturing facilities, like ReGen Composites, have innovated technology that is capable of shredding, grinding, and granulating plastics that normally could end up in landfills, such as plastic bags, coffee cup lids, or pieces of carpet, into useful new feedstock. The aggregate feedstock is then pushed through a hopper that molds new construction blocks that are as solid as cement but 30 percent lighter, fireproof, and mold-resistant.

Plastic Helps New Trees Survive

Planting trees for Arbor Day? Horticultural companies, like A.M. Leonard, supply plastic mesh tree guards, sheaths, stilts and similar products that protect newly planted fragile saplings and improve their chances of survival. When young trees are planted for the first time, their weak limbs can be compared to those of baby deer. Corrugated LDPE plastic tree sleeves are often used to prevent animals from gnawing on the premature bark and offer a fighting chance against forceful winds that may uproot lightweight trees. Vinyl spiral tree guards wrap around skinny trunks like ribbon to deflect damaging heat and sun glare away from the tree. Plastic tube shelters act as individual greenhouses for seedlings and create a safe environment that accelerates growth.

Protecting and Planting Trees Safeguards Our Environment

You don’t need to be a conservationist to recognize that trees are essential to the wellbeing and vitality of our environment. Trees are earth’s great green filters and keep our air clear and freshwater systems clean. However, the U.S. has a dwindling tree count due to urban and rural community development. In fact, from 2009-2014, the U.S. lost 36 million trees per year. To combat this alarming trend, the Arbor Day Foundation has piloted the Time for Trees initiative, which includes a pledge to plant 100 million trees by Arbor Day’s 150th anniversary in 2022.

According to Time for Trees’ predictions, 100 million trees should absorb 8 million tons of carbon, filter close to 16,000 tons of microscopic airborne particulate matter out of the air, remove 578,000 tons of chemical air pollution, as well as intercept and filter 7.1 billion cubic meters of water runoff.

Whether it be the construction industry’s increased demand for plastic lumber due to its 100 percent recyclability and rot-resistance, or the agriculture industry’s reliance on a wide range of plastic tree protector products to strengthen the survival rate of newly planted saplings—the role plastics play in preventing tree loss and deforestation should not be underestimated.

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