Above: Plastic-covered crop near Ingsdon, in the United Kingdom (Derek Harper)
We hear it all the time: "Plastic is evil!" It’s wasteful, it clogs up landfills, and it poisons the ground and water. But lately, a new generation of plastic products and manufacturers has appeared on the scene. These manufacturers promote responsible and conscientious use of their products, emphasizing the recyclability and sustainability of plastic rather than its convenience and overuse. Agriculture is one example of an industry where plastics have long been used, and where they are starting to be used more intelligently.
Did You Know? Plasticulture generally refers to the use of plastic products in agriculture. The term is a combination of the words “plastic” and “agriculture.”When plastic was first developed in the late 1800s, it revolutionized the manufacturing world. Composed mainly of synthetic organic material derived from petroleum, plastic was a less expensive alternative for making toys, camera film, packaging, medical supplies, disposable diapers... the list goes on! These products also offered unprecedented convenience. For example, a soiled diaper could simply be thrown away instead of being washed and re-used.
In farming, the possibilities were endless. Agricultural plastics, or “AG plastics,” have been used in various ways to make agriculture more efficient, save time, and conserve resources—especially water and electricity. For example, plastic film and mulch can be used to cover crops, plastic panels can be used in greenhouse construction, and plastic pipes can be used in highly-efficient drip irrigation systems. Produce grown with the help of plastic is cleaner, of higher quality, and more efficiently produced.
Unfortunately, plastic contains many chemicals and it is often difficult to recycle. Accumulated plastic trash leaches toxic by-products into the soil. Also, AG plastics are sometimes incinerated along with other agricultural waste. These practices ultimately threaten the sustainability of agriculture, not to mention the global food supply. After all, there are around seven billion people on the planet, and they all need to eat.
Did You Know? Plastic can help to artificially extend the growing season and allow smaller farms to compete with larger agricultural businesses.So what is the solution? Do we stop using plastic in agriculture, despite its convenience and many benefits? Simply put, the answer is no. We just need to use plastic better.
Today, AG plastics companies specialize in promoting safer practices when it comes to using, and especially re-using, plastic products. Manufacturers and industry groups (www.plasticulture.org) have embraced environmentally responsible business practices by initiating and endorsing local recycling programs and through the creative re-use of AG plastics in various applications. By working together, farmers and plastic manufacturers are abandoning longstanding practices that are harmful to the environment, in favour of more sustainable ones.
Some problems with AG plastics remain, such as drainage issues after heavy rain and the need for a larger labour force to harvest much larger crop yields. However, by combining research into safer agricultural practices with the responsible use and recycling of plastic, future generations may be able to correct the mistakes of the past.
So is plastic evil? Maybe, by itself, plastic is neither good nor bad. It’s how you use it that matters!
Learn More! Lifecycle of a Plastic Product (American Chemistry Council)
http://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Life-Cycle Factsheet: Recycling Farm Plastic Films (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs)
http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/facts/95-019.ht Plasticulture grant funds available (High Plains/Midwest AG Journal)
http://www.hpj.com/archives/2011/aug11/aug15/0804PlasticultureGrantFunds.cfm Recycling Agricultural Plastics: Where we’re at in Canada (Canadian Geographic)