School children in Ramsbury take to the front line in the fight against plastic waste

By Annabelle Sanderson
12th July 2021

Earlier this year, Class 6 at Ramsbury School started learning about activism, and people through history who have made a difference. There were lots of issues that our class was worried about – for example, equal rights, climate change and especially plastic pollution. We did some research and found that 100% of baby sea turtles have plastic in the tummies, and sea birds are starving to death because their stomachs are filled with plastic so they can’t eat.

By Year Six, Ramsbury School, Wiltshire

Did you know that in just over 20 years, there will be more plastic in the sea than living creatures? Did you know that there is already an island made of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, which is bigger than Texas? These are unbelievable truths. We even found out that when plastic gets into the ground, it can get into the carrots you eat and the water you drink!

We felt strongly that we wanted to do something to make a difference about the plastic situation, so we went out into Ramsbury to evaluate the extent of the plastic problem on our doorstep.

Although we saw a few dog poo bags, face masks, sweet wrappers and plastic bottles, when we looked more closely at the hedges and trees, we found HUNDREDS and THOUSANDS of old plastic tree guards – clear plastic spiral guards, big green guards, mesh guards – some lying on the ground, and some breaking into small pieces. Some were even grown into the ground and into the bark of the trees! Some of the guards looked like they had been there for nearly 20 years!

We knew that we had to do something about this, so we decided to organise a Big Plastic Tree Guard clean-up, on the 11th and 12th of June, to try and remove as many of these old tree guards as possible.

And we also held a Zoom conference on 30th April to talk about what we’d found out, about our big Clean Up plan and about our research into compostable alternatives to plastic tree guards. So many people came to our meeting! We had Ramsbury Estates, Ridge Farm, Hilldrop Farm, Ramsbury Recreation Ground, Ramsbury Parish Council, Greenpeace, The Green Party, Forestry England, Marlborough Transition Group, Wiltshire Council, BBC Radio Wiltshire, Ezeetrees compostable tree guards, Marlborough News Online, Reforest Scotland, Southern Streams, ARK and CPRE!

During our conference, we explained our plan to clear up the old tree guards. We had offers from the landowners to help us put the old tree guards on trailers, and from Wiltshire Council and the Parish Council to take them to the tip. We learned about compostable trees guards from ‘Ezeetrees’ and that their guards are going to be used for all the planting along the HS2 railway line.

Since our conference, lots of things have started to happen. We have been interviewed by BBC Radio Wiltshire – twice – and we have been in the local papers and on social media! We also held a Zoom meeting with Zac Goldsmith, Forestry Minister, who agreed that he would raise the issue with other ministers – and even the Prime Minister! Ramsbury Recreation Ground have now cleared away all of their old tree guards – and they are going to use compostable ones when they plant their new trees.

Our big clean-up last weekend was hugely successful – 90 children went out and managed to clear up hundreds and hundreds of guards. And then we invited local volunteers to help on Saturday. We have cleared one and a half woods, and a large chunk of the paths around Ramsbury. We created a huge mound of plastic waste – which Wiltshire Council has very kindly agreed to take away.

In the autumn, we are going to organise another clean-up, led by the new Year 6, and we are also going to plant our own trees, trialling compostable alternatives to plastic made by Ezeetrees and NexGen, as well as some of our own designs.

However, it is not all good news. During our two clean-up days, even though we removed thousands of tree guards, we estimate that we have cleared only about 1% of the total redundant tree guards which exist around Ramsbury. Not only that, but we found out that one of the biggest barriers to landowners removing their old guards is the cost of taking them to landfill. Did you know that these tree guards cannot even be recycled? So there is no incentive for landowners to remove them – not only do they have to pay people to remove them (unless they have some willing Year 6 volunteers!) but they then have to pay again to dispose of them. No wonder they are still lying on the ground!

We have some suggestions for solutions to this ever-increasing problem:

1. As is now happening in Scotland, we believe that councils should impose an immediate system of fines to landowners who have not removed their tree guards or hedge guards after the recommended 5 years.

2. We believe that councils should use the proceeds from these fines to allow landowners a window of time to dispose of their current tree guards for free, so that they can be removed from our woods as soon as possible.

3. We think that anyone who wants to use plastic tree guards from now on (rather than the compostable alternatives) should have to obtain a licence to use them. They should have to sign an agreement to remove them within 5 years, or face a fine.

4. Any new plastic tree guards that are purchased from now on should be subject to a large disposal fee, to encourage landowners to buy compostable alternatives.

5. We believe that high profile tree-planting projects, such as the Queen’s Green Canopy, should lead the way by only using compostable guards or wire fencing.

6. And finally, we should all lobby the government to ban these plastic tree guards with immediate effect. They are extremely difficult to remove (as we can confirm!), in many cases they harm the tree rather than protecting it, and they are responsible for plastic pollution on an almost unimaginable scale.

Whilst the plans to plant millions of trees over the next few years are really positive, imagine the amount of plastic waste that will be created if millions and millions more plastic tree guards are used. We are trying to solve one problem by creating another, and this just can’t go on. We need to plant trees – not plastic!

Two people searching for something against a cloudy blue sky