As the holiday season winds down, many environmentally-conscious households are faced with a dilemma: what to do with the used Christmas tree?
It's a tree, so you'd think that throwing it in a landfill would have a fairly benign impact. But actually, the pine needles on most Christmas trees take a long time to decompose compared to other tree leaves, and when they do break down, they release huge amounts of greenhouse gases. It's also not exactly a natural phenomenon to have so many trees all being disposed of at one specific time of the year.
Fortunately, researchers at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom have come up with a solution, albeit an unconventional one. They have proposed a process whereby all of those pine needles can be broken down and transformed into paints, as well as other useful products, reports Phys.org.
In other words, there might soon be a way for you to turn your once-decorated Christmas tree into paint that you can then use to decorate your house once again, in another form.
Paint of a different color
The process creates zero waste and utilizes heats and solvents (like glycerol) to break down the needles into a liquid mixture classified as bio-oil, which is essentially a soup of glucose, acetic acid and phenol. The acetic acid is what you can make paints out of, but it can also form adhesives, and even vinegar. Meanwhile, the glucose can be used for making 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," said Cynthia Kartey, the Ph.D. student from the University of Sheffield who envisioned the process. "Biorefineries would be able to use a relatively simple but unexplored process to break down the pine needles."
Christmas trees come in such large supply this time of year, that it's possible they could significantly replace less sustainable raw materials that are currently being used to manufacture these products. It could end the year on a very merry green note, which would be welcome during a time that's usually defined by rampant consumerism which typically leaves a hefty carbon footprint.
"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 Dr. James McGregor, a Sheffield professor of chemical and biological engineering.