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Christmas tree pine needles can be turned into sweeteners and paint

Christmas tree pine needles could soon be used in an array of products including paint and sweeteners, thanks to new research from the University of Sheffield.  

The Christmas pine tree is a staple in many households this time of year, but as 2019 fast approaches, that same Christmas tree quickly turns from festive holiday decoration to a blight and fire hazard.

Some cities offer Christmas tree recycling programs, and trees are usually ground up into free mulch that residents can use in their yards and gardens.

It’s a wonderful idea, and more and more cities are offering free tree recycling programs after the holidays every year. However, for every tree that’s recycled, millions more end up in landfills and pine needles take a long time to biodegrade.

In the US alone, around 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold every year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, and in the UK around seven million of the eight million trees used to decorate homes for the holidays end up in a landfill.

Pine needles emit large amounts of greenhouse gases as they decompose and so even though Christmas trees are biodegradable, they are still contributing to atmospheric greenhouse gas levels every year and adding to a city’s or country’s carbon footprint.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield have developed a new solution for recycling Christmas trees and found a way to break down the complex polymer in pine needles.

Once this polymer, known as lignocellulose, is broken down, it could be used in many different products such as adhesives and food sweeteners.

“My research has been focused on the breakdown of this complex structure into simple, high-valued industrial chemical feedstocks such as sugars and phenolics, which are used in products like household cleaners and mouthwash,” said Cynthia Kartey, who headed the new research. “Biorefineries would be able to use a relatively simple but unexplored process to break down the pine needles.”

Kartey discovered that heat and solvents like glycerol which are environmentally friendly help break down the lignocellulose into liquid bio-oil and solid bio-char.

The bio-oil has many useful chemicals like glucose and phenol acids, and overall the process is completely sustainable.

Recycling pine trees this way would help keep trees out of the landfills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from pine needles in landfills.

“The use of biomass – materials derived from plants – to produce fuels and chemicals currently manufactured from fossil resources will play a key role in the future global economy,” said James McGregor, a member of the research team. “If we can utilise materials that would otherwise go to waste in such processes, thereby recycling them, then there are further benefits.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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