To see the article as it appears in print, please load the pdf file HERE.
Many of us go to great trouble to purchase local produce, or to grow our own, this writer included. So really? One more thing to worry about?
Sadly, yes, and this is a big one. Plastic production is a growing contributor to global warming, set to surpass coal by 2030, according to Beyond Plastics, the Bennington-based organization founded by former EPA administrator Dr. Judith Enck. Plastic is a growth sector for fossil fuel companies, at a time of great pressure on their other products.
Agriculture has become a large-scale consumer of plastic. Plastic is cheap, light-weight, and versatile. You have probably seen plastic film mulches (PFMs) in farm fields, stretched neat and taut in rows with tomato and squash plants poking up through. PFMs can reduce the spread of soil-born fungal diseases and keep down weeds without the use of expensive labor or herbicides. They have made truck farming easier and more profitable. Plastic has been a huge help, and has been sold to us as a clean, inert substance, like glass only lighter and less breakable. But it’s a petroleum and chemical product. The huge train fire in East Palestine, Ohio, this year burned and exploded chemicals on their way to be processed into plastic.
And yet. We’re familiar with the term ‘microplastics’, the extremely tiny particles of degraded plastic that are becoming all-pervasive on our planet. Macro-plastics, like PFMs, degrade in sunlight and rain, and shed microplastics into the soil. PFMs are used for one season, and become dirty, tattered, and impossible to recycle. The same is true of the bags wrapping round hay bales, which creates a conundrum for farmers. In an increasingly volatile climate with excess rainfall now common, those bale wrappers make it possible to harvest and store forage to feed to livestock in winter, essential in the Northeast. They are also a huge environmental problem.
To a lesser extent the same is true of the ubiquitous plastic-covered hoop houses which cover vast areas in farm country, including in the northeast and probably, on net, reduce the carbon footprint of the produce we consume. Hoop houses are covered with greenhouse-grade plastic that, thanks to added UV stabilizers, lasts a fairly long time in sunlight, with most people getting about six years out of a hoop house cover. But ultimately, they degrade over time, must be replaced, and are not recyclable.
The plastic we can see on the farm—which also includes feed and fertilizer bags—is not the only source. Biosolid fertilizer often contains microplastics from discarded bags, cigarette butts, etc. To make matters worse, the fertilizer is often pelleted and encapsulated in—you guessed it! –plastic, which is designed to degrade in the environment.
Microplastics in soil have been found to negatively impact soil microorganisms, the basis for plant life on this planet. Microplastics can reduce water infiltration in the soil and increase the pH. Nanoparticles of plastic even have the ability to circulate in a plant’s xylem and phloem, in the same way that they can circulate in our own veins and arteries. The health effects of this are unknown at this time, but it’s unlikely to be beneficial!
What can we do? This all seems too much—and it is. Judith Enck of Beyond Plastics recently refused to write a book aimed at helping consumers reduce plastic use, telling the publisher who proposed the project that this is a political problem. We will have to band together, and we’ll have to fight.
Awareness is the first step, and there are ways to reduce the ag-plastics you consume. Go for certified organic produce. Organic farmers have to meet strict standards, which include restrictions on plastic use. If you garden or farm, look into organic-certified sheet mulches, made from paper or hemp. Or use cover crops to reduce weed pressure. Reusable row covers made of polyamide mesh or spunbonded fabric are sounder ecologically than low tunnels made of clear plastic. Use organic-certified seed and fertilizer to avoid inadvertently introducing plastic coatings to your soil. Talk to your farmer and support that farmer. She is as much a victim as anyone else here.
Then connect with an organization working on this problem. Beyond Plastics, homegrown in the Northeast, is an obvious choice. To tackle plastic pollution, we need laws that restructure waste management worldwide. Ideally, a “You Make It, You Take It” law would force manufacturers to take back, and recycle, waste that they produce. Europe has passed regulations to reduce plastic use in agriculture. This will spur new innovation. Better products will come along in response to public and legal pressure. It is up to us, not just in our kitchens and our gardens. It is up to us at our computers and on our phones, and at candidate forums, bringing the issue up and demanding action.
Jessie Haas lives in a tiny homemade solar cabin with husband Michael J. Daley. She has written over 40 books for children and adults, including The Hungry Place.
Hay bales wrapped in plastic creates a conundrum for farmers. The bale wrappers make it possible for hay to be preserved in bad weather and feed livestock in winter. They are also a huge environmental problem. (Pexels/Damir, public domain).