Needles From Christmas Trees Can Be Recycled Into A Sweetener (Wishes Do Come True)

January 4, 2019

The holidays are out of the way and you’re likely looking forward to all the good things that 2019 promises to deliver. I hope momentum continues this year and we see people around the globe taking huge strides towards living more sustainably, consuming less and perhaps exploring how best to support a circular economy in some of our major industries. Lord knows we need to do something, fast… But before we move ahead quite so swiftly, let us not forget those sad, now grayish and bare trees that we treasured so very much this past month. A moment of silent to the conifers that were felled for our merriment.

It’s one of the great holiday debates each year: whether to opt for real or synthetic when it comes to Christmas tree purchasing. I can appreciate the pros and cons of each, though I must say that real wins every time for me, simply because there doesn’t have to be any plastic involved if I select this option. Synthetic trees can have a long lifespan if you take care of them, sure, but eventually they will deteriorate and when they do, ultimately they’ll end up in landfill with all of our other poor decisions.

The real ones aren’t a perfect option at this point in time either. Deforestation is one of the leading contributors of greenhouse gases, adding more CO2 to the environment than all the world’s cars and trucks combined. Then there’s their very short lifespan in our homes (unless, of course, you opt for potted and let it grow each year.) As I’ve strolled around the city streets this week, I’ve seen many a sad-looking tree waiting to meet its fate, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be this way? New research suggests that we can go circular and recycle our trees into something surprisingly useful.

Around the world, millions of trees are left to rot in landfill each year. Some are chipped, used as compost or for the formation of public footpaths, but others are bagged up, starved of oxygen and left to release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere: a potent greenhouse gas.

We know that methane is a key contributor to climate change and one of the driving forces behind a global movement towards veganism. Cows are gassy animals and we can’t continue to support such a large population worldwide without detrimental effects. Did you know that methane warms the planet up to 86 times as much as carbon dioxide? Worse, it then degrades into CO2, causing further problems.

Methane comes not only from cows, but from decomposing vegetation left to fester in landfill. Wherever possible, it is beneficial to compost your food waste so as to avoid further fueling this problem. Ideally, we would also do better by utilizing the process of anaerobic digestion for organic waste which could be used to provide biogas instead of that drilled from underground. That’s an argument for another day, though.

While it’s only tiny fraction of a much larger problem, how we dispose of our Christmas trees is important. There are so bloody many of them and if we make their life cycles more sustainable, we might reduce the demand for synthetic ones made of non-biodegradable, non-recyclable resources. Researchers from the University of Sheffield here in the UK have suggested that pine needles are recycled into paint and food sweeteners. How very practical!

Pine needles take a long time to decompose compared to deciduous tree leaves, so they’re potent when it comes to the amount of greenhouse gases they can produce. About 85% of a needle consists of a compound known as lignocellulose. This is a complex polymer that up until now has been largely ignored by industry, considered to have no potential application. However, a bright young bioengineer has cracked the process for breaking down lignocellulose into simpler compounds that it turns out are immensely valuable.

Basic processing results in end products of sugar and phenolics; the latter being utilized in things like mouthwash and household cleaning products. Treat the needles with some heat and solvents and they are split into oil and solids. The oil contains glucose (a natural sugar), acetic acid and phenol – all valuable to multiple industries. Glucose is far superior to the highly popular and horrendous sweetener, fructose (consumption of which leads to a whole host of health problems) and acetic acid is commonly used in paint manufacturing. How very cool to think that the tree used to decorate your home in December could be transformed into the paint you re-do your garden fence with come summer!

There’s a lot of research still to be done and the need for industry to get on board with this. But if, like me, you’re trying to make 2019 your most sustainable year yet, let this one sit on the backburner until next time the holidays roll around. Let’s see what developments there will be by then! And please, don’t put fructose into your body in the meantime. That, I beg of you.




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Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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