Plastic has always been omnipresent in the way we live. And, with the destruction and harm single-use plastic has wrought upon the environment, we are up in arms in eradicating them-from avoiding styro in food keeping to ditching that ever-reliable grocery bag, not even that good 'ol plastic straw is spared.
But while we fight endlessly, even bringing the battle on the political front, plastic seems to be more embedded in how we live our lives than we actually thought, particularly in the food we eat.
Plastic Problem in Farms
Plastic is seen everywhere on farms. It is used to protect crops, pack silage, ease irrigation, and transfer essential stuff, such as feed or fertilizer.
A big chunk of plastic use in farms is the proliferation of agricultural sheets or films. In a 2017 study by the American Chemical Society, global plastics production has increased rapidly in recent years from 335 million tons in 2016 to 348 million tons in 2017, with a stark increase in the global use of agricultural films, growing from 4.4 million tons in 2012 to 7.4 million tons in 2019.
These sheets are used to cover the soil as plastic mulch. They hinder the growth of weeds and, as such, lead to a rise in fertilizer consumption, control humidity and temperature, and protect the soil and plants from the elements. This material benefitted farms and has been widely used since the 1960s, as it contributed to a one-third increase in crop yields, a Chinese government study revealed in 2014.
But even with the many benefits of agricultural films, there are glaring drawbacks. These plastic materials are a pain to use and recycle, as it easily gets contaminated by the soil. And these contaminants, a Cornell University study noted, carry more than half of the plastic material weight due for recycling, which makes them very expensive and uneconomical. It is also harmful, as the thinner the microfilm that is used, the more difficult it is to discard it from the soil. As such, it will stay there for a very long time. These microplastics also prove to be a bane for soil quality, harming microorganisms that reside in the soil.
No definitive research is available on the ill effects of plastic on the soil and its food. As microplastics pose a danger to human life, studies showed that they are invading our food, and in turn, our bodies. The origins of these plastics and their impact on our health have yet to be determined.
Biodegradable Alternative to Plastic
A biodegradable alternative to plastic mulch is a viable and eco-friendly choice. Farmers need not remove it completely; it only needs to be placed in the soil by the season's end. Such biodegradability has been established, and currently, an EU standard is in place for farmers to see its benefits of having the plastic dissolve after use. However, questions still remain on how these mulches will affect the soil.
Another consideration is the cost that comes with the swap. Can farmers afford it? Currently, biodegradable plastic is thrice more costly than its polyethylene counterpart that is available in the US.
Given its steep price, farmers can consider other options in cutting back on plastic.
In Japan, farmers use paper to make the pots they need for their crops. Instead of taking each seedling out of the pot to plant out in the field, they position paper pots in a chain and then feed into a machine that embeds the chain onto the ground. This would drastically save time, cutting hours of labor to mere minutes. Not only is this practice time-efficient, but it is also eco-friendly because of the biodegradable nature of paper. The good news is that the method is being adopted elsewhere, such as in the US, where the system is imported to serve farmers in Wisconsin.
Recycling Still the Practical Solution To Plastic Waste
But such biodegradable alternatives may still be not immediately available; recycling still is the workable approach to curb plastic use.
Plastic burning remains commonplace around the world despite the dangers of releasing destructive toxins into the air.
However, plastics recycling is not easily accessible to farmers. In Wales, the United Kingdom, which bans plastics burning, farmers were left with lesser options when a recycling company that collects plastic from their farms ceased operations after their services became too expensive.
To solve this problem, a group of farm plastics collectors in the UK formed a coalition for a new agricultural plastics recycling collection scheme. A non-profit formed in January 2020, the UK Farm Plastic Responsibility Scheme (UKFRPS) accepts plastic for farmers at no additional cost. The group also aims to educate farmers on reducing waste plastic contamination, thus offering a better approximation of the amount of farm plastic waste is being collected and recycled. The partnership came a year after a similar initiative was forged, the Agriculture, Plastic and Environment UK (Ape UK), which charges farmer levies on the plastic wastes they acquire.
Interest in Plastic-Free Farming Rises
But experts insist that using biodegradable alternatives is the most effective way to address the plastic waste problem. To discourage using non-biodegradable plastic, it should be made more expensive if not banned, advocates say.
And the interest in plastic-free farming is growing. Farmers in Scotland are currently taking the lead in eliminating plastics in their farms, using plastic cartons to pack their produce and biodegradable silage wrap, refillable chemical containers, and reusable bags for bulk feed.
Plastic may not be that urgent of an environmental concern in agriculture, but farmers can quickly address the issue squarely without altering their routines.
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