Plastic is all around us. In our homes, workplaces, local supermarkets, food, and natural environments. The US annual output of plastic waste ranges in tens of millions of tons. According to data from 2018, the US generated around 35.7 million tons of plastic waste. Only a fraction was recycled – around 8.7%. The rest mostly ended up in landfills, left to slowly decompose into particles called microplastics. Carried by the winds and rainwater, these particles can get very far from the landfill where they started decomposing. Traces of microplastic can be found from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from the Himalayas to the greatest depths of the oceans.
Why is so important to reduce plastic use?
Aside from the environment, microplastics are also polluting living organisms. Reports about fish meat containing microplastic have been mounting for years, but it is not only the sea creatures that are facing this problem. Researchers from the Netherlands published a study earlier this year, revealing very concerning data. They tested multiple samples of cattle and pig meat, milk, and blood and found that 80% of them contain microplastics. Since the Dutch have pretty strict quality standards in food production, it is fair to assume that the situation is pretty serious in other countries as well. A similar story goes with the study that tested drinking water for microplastics; the portion of the contaminated samples was more than 80%.
As a result of such widespread contamination of water and food, we consume about 5 grams of micro and nano plastics every week. This, unsurprisingly, doesn’t affect our health in a good way. The overconsumption of plastic is changing us and the environment, and we still discovering in what ways. What we’ve learned so far doesn’t give us the hope that we or most other species on Earth will somehow benefit from this situation.
Plastics contain a variety of artificial compounds whose effects on the living world we are still learning about. Probably the most researched ones currently are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which mimic certain hormones. Exposure to EDCs creates hormonal imbalance and triggers a series of reactions in the body. One of the most prominent consequences of EDC exposure is fertility loss, which is especially prominent in men. Some researchers have gone as far as to propose that exposure to plastics may be the leading cause of the steep decline in fertility rates in many world countries. What is even more worrying is that EDCs make up just a small portion of the total number of chemicals in plastic, and there are many more that we haven’t studied yet.
The solution to the plastic problem is unambiguous – we must reduce its use as much as possible. To raise awareness about the dire situation and start working together towards the solution, we are marking a plastic-free July this year. The idea is to completely avoid the use of single-use plastic for a month, extend the use of durable plastic that you already have in the home, and gradually switch to biodegradable and safe alternatives. Since plastic is so ubiquitous, there are many areas we can focus on if we want to reduce our plastic waste output. Making your garden plastic-free can considerably contribute to plastic waste reduction, so in the spirit of the month, we’ll cover the six basic steps to a plastic-free garden.
1. Avoid plastic containers
Plastic pots and saucers are quite ubiquitous in gardening, and seemingly there is no alternative that can fully replace them. But that is very far from the truth, as there are numerous perfectly viable non-plastic materials. Also, these eco-friendly alternatives often work even better than their plastic counterparts. Plants grown in plastic pots can easily get overheated if placed under direct sunlight. The plastic heats up quickly and transfers the heat to the soil, making very unfavorable conditions for the roots.
Some of the alternatives include pots and seed trays made of newspapers, toilet paper rolls, coco coir, and terracotta. However, you can always make it a bit more fun and get creative. There are many things that you can reuse and repurpose to serve as pots and growing containers. Old cups and bowls, hollowed-out tree stumps, cake trays, jars, and baskets, are just some of the examples.
It is also very helpful to minimize buying plants from the nursery that come in plastic pots. Try to pick the bare-root plants and ones that come in biodegradable containers. If you must buy a plant in a plastic pot, make sure to reuse the pot as much as possible before throwing it away for good. Another thing to consider is that you can always get some plastic-free cuttings and seeds from your social circle. Asking friends and family, posting in social media groups, and using plant-sharing apps are some of the easiest and cheapest ways to get the plants you like while minimizing waste. And the best thing is, you do this by connecting with loved ones and people who share the same passion.
2. Always opt for garden tools made of metal, carbon, or wood
Garden tools made of natural materials are often far more durable, efficient, and of greater quality compared to their plastic counterparts. By adding just a little bit of effort to the maintenance of these tools, you can ensure that they will serve you for years, some even decades. Ditch the plastic watering cans, stick supports, fences, buckets, sun barriers, and similar items for metal, carbon, and plant-based alternatives.
3. Use twines & plant markers made of natural materials
Plant markers and twines are essential tools in any herb garden. Being susceptible to damage, they sooner or later wear out and we switch them with new ones. Maybe it seems like a trifle, but the use of plastic twines and markers can produce a considerable amount of completely unnecessary waste in the long term. In the quest to minimize plastic waste in the garden, it is important to consider everything, even the smallest items.
Plastic (nylon) twines are an especially problematic type of waste. When they end up in the environment, wild animals can get tangled in them or consume them. This often causes injuries and increases the likelihood of the animal staving or getting snatched by a predator. Forget the nylon twines and substitute them with slivers and fabrics made of natural, biodegradable materials. You don’t even need to go to the store to get them. There are probably some old cotton or linen clothes, rags, or similar fabrics laying around the house that can be repurposed as garden twines with a bit of modification.
When it comes to non-plastic plant marker alternatives, you can get very creative and crafty. Wine corks, stones, old cutlery, popsicle sticks, and jar lids are some of the most popular DIY markers, but there are many more available alternatives. Your imagination is the limit.
4. Glass greenhouses instead of plastic ones
Plastic greenhouse covers and other plastic insulation materials are very common because of their cheapness and practical utility. However, they are susceptible to damage, ending up in the trash after a few years at best. In the long term, using plastic greenhouse covers can result in a considerable amount of waste, especially if the growing area is big. Another very important disadvantage of using plastic covers is that many of them contain chemicals that react with UV light. Some of the end products of the reaction are compounds you don’t want near anything you plan to eat.
Although glass greenhouses are considerably more expensive than plastic ones, they have a number of important advantages. They last a lot longer, don’t emit toxic substances, plants grow better in them and they are made of recyclable and biodegradable materials. Glass greenhouse might be a substantial investment, but worth considering for professional growers.
5. Use homemade fertilizer and compost
Most commercial fertilizers and growing media come in thick plastic packaging intended for single use. Creating your own fertilizer and soil can significantly curb plastic consumption in the garden, but it also brings other benefits. Homemade fertilizer reduces the overall waste output in your home, and it saves money otherwise spent on fertilizer. However, creating compost requires adequate space, time, and effort that some people are simply not able to provide. In this situation, it is best to reach out to a group of local growers via your friends, neighbors, or social media. There is probably someone willing to partner up and take your kitchen scraps in exchange for some compost. You can also find growers who sell their compost and directly buy it from them. Don’t forget to bring your own reusable packaging.
6. Find the most suitable alternative for plastic weed barriers
Weed barriers are extremely helpful tools in organic crop production as they can drastically reduce the need for herbicides. Are there non-plastic alternatives that are as good or better? In short, yes. However, it all depends on how much you are willing to change your growing habits. There are cultivation methods that make weed barriers unnecessary, like mulching, solarizing, minimizing tillage, and ground cover planting. However, if you’d like to stick with weed barriers, you can use burlap or similar biodegradable fabrics. Since such materials decompose over time, they need to be changed more frequently than plastic ones, but the advantage is that there is no waste or microplastic pollution in the process.
One step at a time
This might seem like a pretty demanding list, but don’t feel pressured to replace all plastic in your garden at once, as soon as possible. Small, incremental changes are more likely to stick in the long term, so it’s best to go one step at a time. Plastic items will eventually wear out, get damaged, or become unusable in another way, and gradually replacing them with environmentally-friendly, safe, biodegradable materials is the easiest way to eventually become truly plastic-free. If we are really seeking to make a long-lasting change and drastically reduce plastic use, we should strive to make sustainable decisions a habit, not a continuous draining effort.
- Carington, D. (2022). Microplastics detected in meat, milk and blood of farm animals. The Guardian, June 8, 2022.
- Kosuth, M., Wattenberg, E. V., Mason, S. A., Tyree, C., Morrison, D. (2017). Synthetic Polymer Contamination in Global Drinking Water. Orb Media report.
- D’Angelo, S. & Meccariello, R. (2021). Microplastics: A Threat for Male Fertility. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021 Mar; 18(5): 2392.