It may seem counterintuitive, but agriculture in the United States has a big carbon footprint. In fact, a great deal of Earth’s plastic garbage comes from agricultural products. The U.S. agricultural industry alone uses an estimated one billion pounds of plastic every year. Some of these products include:
- films for covering soil and wrapping products
- product containers
- planting containers
The list goes on, pointing to an unfortunate truth: “Plasticulture” is a powerhouse, and agriculture is a major culprit. Two decades ago, those in the field of agriculture began to notice the boom in plastic popularity as an alternative for traditional storage methods. The convenience quickly overshadowed the increase in plastic waste tossed in landfills, buried or burned at farms, and waste management facilities.
Specialized recycling facilities have been developed to combat the increased use of agricultural plastics. However, farmers have begun to recognize that it’s better to reduce the amount of plastic used altogether, rather than finding ways to recycle it into other plastic products for someone else to throw away.
Hitting the issue from the supply side, farmers have begun to eliminate the need for some of the most common disposable plastic products.
Dry Farming Instead of Irrigating
Some farmers are moving away from irrigation techniques, which historically have used plastic pipes and tubing systems. Instead, dry farming, which involves the trapping and exclusive use of rainwater, is gaining momentum in the United States.
More specifically, dry farming is a method that is used year-round. The watering technique replaces the need for irrigation by utilizing residual soil moisture from a rainy season to water crops during the dry season.
Packing Bulk Items with Biodegradable Bags
Flexible intermediate bulk containers (FIBCs) are bulk totes and other bags used to store and transport products. FIBC bulk bags made using woven polypropylene are an eco-friendlier option for farmers who need storage options for seeds because they are made from plastic that has been melted down to make other products. Since woven polypropylene bags are easily recyclable, they encourage people to stop using single-use plastic products.
Another option farmers utilize is oxo-biodegradable plastic bags. This material contains an additive that eventually begins to expose the plastic molecules to air and microbes, allowing it to break down at the end of its expected life span.
Choosing Mulch More Carefully
Plastics that cover soil have numerous benefits for crops. To name a few, plastic covers can suppress weeds, keep the soil warm, protect plants and reduce the runoff that would normally wash away fertilizers. While machinery can be used to spread plastic mulch (saving substantial time, money and effort for farmers), biodegradable options like straw and wood chips still have the same benefits for crops.
Using Natural Seedling Trays
Farmers start many crops in tiny pots and trays inside greenhouses. Those thin plastic containers then become garbage when damaged. Some farmers are now reducing plastic while skipping a step in planting by choosing biodegradable plant pots and trays. The containers eventually become one with the soil, and as an added benefit, seedlings’ delicate, tiny roots remain undamaged during the planting process.
The Future of Plasticulture
There’s no doubt the use of plastic products in agricultural practices is still largely accepted in the U.S. and many other industrialised nations. However, the above choices, combined with other developing methods, are allowing farmers to make educated sustainable moves that minimize plastic use while maintaining the integrity of their farms. Without these promising alternatives to plastic use, agriculture would remain a major plastic-consuming industry well into the future.
Still, there’s a long way to go before the agricultural industry takes a big step back from consuming a staggering amount of plastic. Hopefully, as these and other sustainable options increase in popularity, growers will soon see more options for reducing the amount of waste their crops produce.