By Jane Bloodworth Rowe
We’ve all heard about how plastic is filling our landfills and contaminating our oceans. Plastic is not biodegradable, and it can break down into microplastics that wash into the oceans, pollute the water, and threaten marine life. However, many people may not be aware that agriculture is heavily dependent on plastic products.
Plastic is used in irrigation pipes and as mulch. Even organic farmers often depend on dark plastic to suppress weeds and prevent fruits and vegetables from touching the ground which, in wet weather, can lead to rot and disease. All of this adds up to a lot of expense for the farmer and a lot of worn-out plastic products being buried on-site or dumped into landfills. However, some farmers are fighting back against plastic by reducing their need for irrigation and using biodegradable mulch or cover crops, rather than plastic, to control weeds.
Farmers in the arid West are beginning to practice dry farming, a method that allows them to grow crops with very little rainfall and thus not dependent on plastic irrigation pipes. Here on the wet, Atlantic seaboard some farmers are turning to retention ponds to collect runoff during periods of heavy rain and release it onto the fields during dry periods. The added benefit is that these ponds can help to improve water quality by trapping some of the nutrients present in the water.
Plastic mulch is a convenient, labor-saving means of weed control, but biodegradable materials such as straw and leaves can be a great non-plastic substitute. Many farmers are also turning to cover crops to control weeds and enrich the soil. Clover, winter wheat, and grasses, when planted in the fall, discourage weed growth over the winter. They also prevent erosion and store nitrogen and, when mowed in the spring, release that nitrogen into the soil as they decompose. This reduces the need for fertilizers, and the decomposing organic matter creates a mat that continues to discourage weed growth.
Newer, more eco-friendly plant containers make it possible for farmers to reduce plastic waste. While most seeds are sown directly into the ground, some plants are started in containers. Now, researchers in Japan have developed biodegradable paper containers that can be planted directly into the soil, reducing the need for the wasteful plastic variety.
The reduced use of plastic means less reliance on fossil fuels, and a cleaner, healthier planet.