Chemical engineer Cynthia Kartey is all about turning biomass—from leftover crop stalks to fallen trees—into something valuable. So Christmas sparked a lightbulb moment for Kartey, a Ph.D. student in the University of Sheffield, when she began to wonder what happens to peoples’ trees after the holiday season.
In the U.K., where she lives, 7 million trees end up in a landfill a year, where they decompose and eventually emit greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. In the United States, 93 percent of people who buy real Christmas trees recycle them via a local program or in their yard, per the University of Illinois, but Kartey’s research shows these trees can have a full life after Christmas elsewhere: in paint, adhesives, or even your coffee sweetener.
See, the trees’ pine needles can break down with some heat and a solvent like water or glycerol. This process results in both a liquid and solid product. Kartey is focusing on the liquid, which typically contains glucose, acetic acid, and phenol. They each have a use, whether it’s food sweeteners or vinegar. Converting pine needles to these products is quite simple, but the details of the process haven’t been studied enough for industry to take interest. That’s what Kartey is hoping to change.
“This is an interesting way to go if we can have Christmas trees to decorate at home during Christmas, and also we’re able to convert the waste into an acid that can be used in the manufacture of paint,” she told Earther. “We can have them back in our houses to decorate again.”
While it’s no secret that other forms of biomass can be converted into simple sugars and acids, Kartey’s research has now confirmed this for pine trees, too. She’d love to see the process employed on a larger scale once she fully understands the mechanics behind it. Right now, it’s a “proof of concept,” that Christmas trees have other purposes after the holidays.
People are realizing more and more how the holiday season can take a toll on the environment—from wrapping paper to food waste. Until we can extract sugar from our Christmas trees, at least be sure to properly recycle it so that it can go into someone’s garden. The landfill is no place for a tree that sat among family. Amirite?