The Plastic Dilemma

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

The recent severe weather experienced by the west coast drives home the reality of our changing climate. Gardeners pride themselves on being good stewards of the land and are always trying new techniques to improve. However, there is a fly in the sustainability ointment.

The horticultural industry uses a lot of plastic. Pots, weed barrier, netting, propagation equipment; it’s overwhelming.  On a global basis, about 4 percent of world oil production is used as a feedstock for all plastic and another 4 percent is consumed as energy in the manufacturing process. Emissions are just the beginning of the problem.  The Earthways Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden estimates that about 350,000 lbs. of horticultural plastic enters the waste stream each year in America. Plastic is ubiquitous, does not degrade rather it disintegrates and some types (PVC and polystyrene) leech toxins into the soil and groundwater.  As it disintegrates, it becomes microplastic fragments that can be found both in marine settings and in the soil.  We are all aware of the impact on marine life but it has now been discovered that these fragments are in the soil and have a significant negative impact on arthropods and roundworms (all important in the breakdown of organic matter). 

Freedom from plastic is the goal but will take time. There are things gardeners can do right now to reduce their plastic consumption.

  • Extend the life of plastic you already own by careful handling and reuse
  • Forgo plastic when workable alternatives exist. Use biodegradable pots made of coir or fibre and try soil blocking for starting seedlings. Use wooden plant markers.
  • Buy bare root plants and or start plants from seeds to cut down on plastic pots
  • Use planters made of terra cotta, metal or ceramics.
  • Only use tools made from metal and wood
  • Skip the use of bagged products and purchase these products at a bulk outlet using preowned containers.
  • Use weed barriers that biodegrade such as cardboard or biofilm (made from corn)
Metal tools that last a lifetime

There may still be items for which no good alternative exists in your situation.  In these cases, purchase higher quality versions that are more durable and last a long time.  Companies such as Bootstrapped Farmer are now specializing in this type of product.

Many years ago (1996) I purchased 2 large plant trays from Lee Valley Tools and am still using them.  The trays are still in the catalogue and I am going to purchase more.  I have a metal watering can which I have had since I started to garden.  These things can be passed along to younger gardeners.  As the urgency of this issue becomes apparent, additional products come to market assisting in the transition to freedom from plastic.

“We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do.” ~ Barbara Ward


Resources

https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/say-no-plastic-garden

https://www.npr.org/2019/07/09/735848489/plastic-has-a-big-carbon-footprint-but-that-isnt-the-whole-story

https://www.bootstrapfarmer.com/

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