The leading tree shelter producer recently marked its 35th year of production with a tour of its facility in Aberdare, Wales. The event was an opportunity to learn more about the firm’s range of products, its recycling programme and its ambitions for the future.

It was on a rainy morning in May that a crowd of stakeholders and influencers from the forestry sector gathered in Aberdare, Wales, to see tree shelter manufacturer Tubex’s production process at first hand.

Guests included the town’s mayor, Wendy Treeby, who planted a tree on the grounds and told in a speech how she had worked on the site in the 1980s, back when it was a sewing factory. After that business closed, Tubex moved in, setting up its manufacturing facility in 1987.

The company’s first factory had opened in London in 1970, making a variety of products for a range of industries. It wasn’t until after it moved production to Wales that its first tree shelters were launched, quickly becoming the most popular on the market, selling well in the UK and overseas.

Forestry Journal: Site director Dean Latten shows Mayor Wendy Treeby some of the recycled material that goes into the Tubex recipe.Site director Dean Latten shows Mayor Wendy Treeby some of the recycled material that goes into the Tubex recipe.

May’s event was ostensibly held to mark 35 years of production at its Aberdare site, but was just as much a celebration of all it has achieved in the last two years, which have seen the company overcome some extraordinary challenges and make some of the most important announcements in its history.

These include the launch of its tree shelter collection and recycling programme in the UK and the unveiling of Tubex Nature, its new range of bio-based tree shelters designed to be biodegradable and non-toxic.

An exclusive tour of the Aberdare facility – now three times its original size – began in the warehouse where new shelters, fresh off the production line, sit waiting to go out. At the time of our visit, the area was relatively quiet, but at the height of the season every bay will be full from floor to ceiling with product from Tubex’s best-selling Standard range. Each full delivery load comprises 33,000 shelters, going out several times a day.

Nearby sit bulk bags of plastic materials in pellet and flake form, destined to become new shelters. This included waste material from on site – offcuts which have already been through the manufacturing process once and are now to be re-used – and resin brought in from other sites owned by plastics giant Berry Global, which Tubex joined in 2015.

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The origins of different materials can be guessed at from their colour and texture – white flakes were most likely PVC window frames, blue pellets probably from wet wipes or nappies – but all are suitable for repurposing as Standard tree shelters, as Tubex works to raise the percentage of recycled material in its products to 100.

Tubex has its own regrinding facility on site, so any waste material from its process – too valuable to sell off – can be turned back into small, light flakes to be used again. Any production waste goes straight back into the process, mixed with secondary reprocessed material and virgin plastic, all diligently weighed and measured so Tubex can say with confidence exactly what percentage of each of its products is made from recycled plastic.

Forestry Journal:  Standard tree shelters, fresh from the production line. Standard tree shelters, fresh from the production line.

On the production line, the carefully measured mix of plastics is melted, shaped and cooled by machine, only handled at the very end of the process, when the shelters are effectively ready to go out. Tubex has nine production lines, each one capable of producing the same products in various lengths and diameters. It’s a heavily automated process, where safety is paramount.

A small patch of ground at the rear of the factory has been made use of to demonstrate a few products. Here, on the day of our visit, Mayor Wendy Treeby planted a tree, marked with a plaque, and there are others in various stages of development. Among the products protecting them is the new Nature biodegradable tree shelter.

Made from bio-based polymers (materials wholly or partly derived from biomass, such as plants, waste or crops), Tubex Nature is designed to degrade and break down into water and CO2 by a process of microbiology. Rate and time period of bio-degradation will depend on soil and climatic conditions, but mulching or burying it at its end of life will significantly increase the rate of the process.

Other shelters protecting cherry trees in the grounds include Tubex Standard in different heights and containing different mixes of recycled material. Tubex’s current ambition is to get its mix up to 50-per-cent recycled material in the next year.

Our tour continued with a look inside a new state-of-the-art facility installed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed Tubex to refocus its efforts to PPE production, manufacturing vital materials used in over 170 million FFP3 masks for NHS workers across the UK. The tour concluded with a look around the temporary warehouse in which the company has been storing bulk sacks of used shelters returned through its collection and recycling programme. 

This not-for-profit scheme has now run for one complete season (operating in summer months, when the factory is not in full production), resulting in the collection of 150,000 shelters or 21 tonnes of material. 

Tubex sends out bulk sacks to its end users, who fill them with used tree shelters. Tubex then collects the sacks (at a flat rate of £39 each) and brings them back to its plant to be sorted and compacted into bales weighing around 800 kg and transferred off site for reprocessing. Maximising the weight of the bales is important for the recycling process itself, but it also means Tubex can make the most of each delivery, with the bales capable of being stacked in twos so that each lorryload is the equivalent of 48 pallets of material.

Forestry Journal: Plans are afoot to automate the end of the production line in the interest of safety and efficiency.Plans are afoot to automate the end of the production line in the interest of safety and efficiency.

The recycling process is made up of four stages, where the material is shredded and then washed while passing through a series of mesh grids with holes of increasingly smaller sizes. The combination of the abrasion of rubbing together in the water jets and passing through the grids eventually results in the production of flakes of around two to four inches in size.

The flakes are returned to Aberdare and fed into a machine that melts them and extrudes them into pellets (as seen at the start of the tour) ready to be used again in the production of tree shelters.

As a manufacturer first and foremost – not a recycler – it was interesting to see how the company has had to adapt its site to accommodate a huge storage, sorting and cleaning operation. And a lot more will be collected this year.

Following our tour of the facility, Forestry Journal grasped the opportunity to speak to site manager Dean Latten to learn more about the strategies the company has adopted.

In the 18 years he’s been with the business, he’s seen at first hand how it has transformed, evolving from family-oriented firm to a more corporate structure, tapping into the resources and expertise of parent company Berry Global to develop and grow, even amidst the trying times of Brexit and COVID.

“Certainly within the last couple of years we’ve had some challenges,” said Dean. “We’ve had to adapt quite heavily, but I’m happy to say we continued to grow during that period and this year we’re hoping to grow by 15 to 25 per cent. But that doesn’t come without its challenges.”

A highly seasonal business, Tubex starts to see demand pick up around September/October, tapering off around April/May. During this period it typically scales up its on-site workforce.

Dean said: “Going into this season, on the back of the pandemic, there was scarcity in terms of available resource when it comes to the labour element. We put it down to the pandemic and Brexit, but we needed to adapt. We had to tailor the business by offering increased wages to incentivise people, but by the time that happened we’d lost about 12 weeks of the production period and it was very difficult to catch up. So we went through the latter part of the season – January, February, March – in a make-to-order position. 

Forestry Journal: On this line, holes are punched in the product, with waste material collected for reuse.On this line, holes are punched in the product, with waste material collected for reuse.

“Our customers typically expect to receive orders in 14–21 days, but that went up to 42 days in some instances. That led to a certain degree of frustration for our customers. So it’s been a bit of a challenging season, but we’ve done our best to learn from it. We’re trying to work with our main distributors to produce materials they can take in the summer months to help enable them to mitigate some of the issues we’ve seen this year, helping them with their lead times.”

Turning to the subject of its products, Dean spoke of Tubex’s ambition to improve sustainability by driving up its use of recycled materials – and the issues that must be overcome.

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“We like to think ahead of the curve,” he said. “Two or three years ago we said to ourselves we needed to change the portfolio of products we offer. We try to incorporate as much recycled content into our Standard as possible. This is generally a multitude of materials combined and dyed one colour, normally a light grey. But it doesn’t have great translucent properties, so when you put that into our product, you lose light transmission, which is going to prevent photosynthesis, and that presents a problem.

“With tubes of 0.8 m and below it doesn’t really matter, so those can be up to 100 per cent recycled material. Above that it’s currently around 20 per cent and we’re trying to push that higher, aiming for 50 per cent for the next planting season. But the resource can be quite difficult to obtain. Everyone’s trying to move away from using virgin materials now. The benefit of being part of Berry, with all its resources, is we can tap into other sites and draw those materials to us.”

The obvious answer to acquiring more recycled material is to get more used shelters coming back from the field, which is why the collection and recycling programme has quickly become such an important part of Tubex’s forward strategy. Dean characterised its first year as a ‘mini’ success.

“We’ve not quite closed the loop yet. When we launched, I think it was only with one or two distributors. They were dubious, but the only ones willing to buy into it. This year, moving into the second season, all our main distributors have said they want to be part of it. Last year we recycled 25 tonnes of materials, this year we’re looking at six times that amount. That’s our target. My hope is it grows and grows.

“We have a vision we’re working towards. It’s still in its infancy, but so far it’s looking positive.”

In recent years, the use of plastic tree shelters has become something of a hot topic, with some environmentalists arguing they should not be used and pushing for nature-based alternatives (often ineffective) or no shelters at all. Experienced foresters will know the folly of such thinking.

Forestry Journal:

Amid the current drive to increase tree planting to help tackle climate and biodiversity crisis, it is essential that each tree planted is given the best possible chance at reaching maturity. However, with a number of prominent tree-planting groups – not least the Woodland Trust – pledging to go plastic-free, it’s clear alternatives must be offered. Enter Tubex Nature.

Dean said: “It was always the dream of Tubex to have a product that was functional, lasts for five to seven years until it’s served its purpose and then would disappear in a puff of smoke. In reality, that’s not going to happen.

“What we’re doing instead is working towards having a functional product that, at end of life, will biodegrade and meet all the criteria to ensure it’s as green as possible. As the market leader in the UK, we have a responsibility to be at the forefront, answering difficult questions, pushing for innovation, and we have to take that responsibility seriously. 

“Attitudes change. You can treat it as negative, but I see it as an opportunity. If there are big planting projects up for grabs which are plastic-free, it’s clear Tubex must diversify its product portfolio to enable it to keep doing what it’s doing. This is why we’ve got the investment in R&D for new materials. We’ve got some exciting things in the pipeline that will allow us to continue to adapt to market conditions.”

Tubex Nature is primarily marketed to customers planting in hard-to-access places which would make collection of the shelters prohibitively complex – if not impossible. However, Tubex is clear that, for the majority of its customers, the most environmentally friendly option is to keep using plastic shelters while engaging in its recycling programme.

Dean said: “The way forward is for the consumers and manufacturers of these products to put the right measures in place to ensure we can create a circular economy. The way we process plastic is far more efficient – in terms of carbon footprint, etc – than other products. It’s not the material that’s bad. It’s how we use it. How we treat the life cycle of the material is where the opportunity is. The forestry community is a great one to work within, because everyone wants things to work. Our customers are very proactive in their approach and very supportive. They can see what we’re trying to achieve, how we’re trying to be as open as we can possibly be in our approach. We want to make sure we’re building a portfolio of products to last many years and ensure year-on-year loyalty.

Thankfully, we have a good team here and the support of Berry to ensure we’re where we need to be for the next year ahead and many beyond.”