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Why food’s plastic problem is bigger than we realize

In supermarkets, plastic isn’t just a problem. It’s also ubiquitous on farms – but producers are now seeking to kill it in favor of environmentally-friendly substitutes.

The term ‘ reusable ‘ rang out in the hands of culture. In our daily lives, we seem to learn non-stop about single-use plastics, and we are taking action: people are avoiding disposable coffee cups, refusing plastic straws and seeking the stores to bundle in the material. But when you look at the plastic-wrapped tomatoes on a supermarket shelf, what you may not see is the packaging that was used to make the food. What if the plastic issue goes a lot farther back?

Plastic is prevalent at plantations. Used for wrapping silage, covering wheat, irrigation tubing, and carrying feed and fertilizer. According to a Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) 2010 survey, 45,000 tons of agricultural plastics are manufactured in the UK each year.

The biggest contributor to this issue is plastic sheets that are scattered over the soil to act as a kind of plastic mulch, making up more than 40 percent of the total agri-plastic industry. We inhibit weed growth, increase the absorption of fertilizers, control temperature and humidity, and protect plants and soil against bad weather. Researchers estimate plastic mulch raises a third of crop yields. When it was first launched in the 1950s, the product was heralded as an agricultural blessing, and in 2019 global use of plastic film on farms was expected to reach 6.7 million tons–almost 2 percent of all plastic produced each year. The use of plastic to grow crops even has a language of its own: compost.

But a problem lies in the extensive use of plastic mulch. It is usually difficult and costly to recycle plastic used on farms because it becomes polluted with water, chemicals, and fertilizer. These emissions can add to up to 50 percent of the total recycling material weight, making the process costly and inefficient. If agri-plastic can not be recycled, burning it, burying it or sending it to the landfill are the only options for disposing of it.

Marcus Flury, a soil science researcher at Washington State University, says he is concerned about the effect the plastic mulch has on the climate. It also affects the soil in harmful ways, for all the advantages plastic mulch offers. Evidence has shown that the finer the material, the easier it is to extract microplastics without trapping them in the dirt, where they can linger for decades. Microplastics can adversely affect the quality of the soil and could harm the bacteria and tiny organisms that call home the soil.

Scientists still do not fully understand the long-term effects all this plastic has on ecosystems, and the food we eat by definition. Research has started to show that microplastics are penetrating the human food chain and our bodies, but it remains to be determined precisely where these contaminants originate from and how they affect our health.

Flury suggests that exchanging plastic mulch for a biodegradable substitute could be our best bet: it would not have to be drained, and at the end of the season, it could easily be tilled into the dirt. There is already an EU standard for plastic mulch biodegradability and growers can be confident that after use, the material will break down. Yet questions remain regarding the impact these mulches have on the soil itself.

This ecological exchange, however, comes at a cost not affordable to many producers. According to Flury, biodegradable plastic is at present almost three times more costly than its US polyethylene counterpart.

Biodegradable plastic is not the only alternative that farmers want to cut back on.

Many crops start their lives in tiny trays of plastic and containers. But the Japanese farmers have been using paper-made pots for decades. Instead of extracting each seedling from their respective pot to be planted in the field, paper pots are assembled in a chain and fed through a system that transplants the chain to the ground, transforming working hours into minutes. The technique, which is not only time-efficient but also more environmentally friendly because the material is biodegradable, is increasingly being introduced internationally – for example, a company called Small Farm Works is manufacturing the device in Wisconsin in the US.

Before biodegradable substitutions are widely available, it is likely to be better to recycle any plastic used than the alternative.

Plastic burning is still a fairly common practice on farms worldwide, thus dumping harmful pollutants, such as dioxins, into the soil.

Yet recycling plastics isn’t always easy for farmers to reach. In Wales in 2019, where burning plastic crop waste has been prohibited since 2005, farmers said they were left with few choices when the only organization committed to harvesting plastic from farms for recycling had to suspend their services after new rates paid by recycling plants made the business not financially viable any more.

Now two new schemes are hoping to make things better. A consortium of UK farm plastic collectors has joined forces to create a voluntary recycling scheme for agricultural plastics, the UK Farm Plastic Responsibility. Scheme (UKFPRS), which is due to start in January 2020. Mark Webb, who manages Farm XS, a recycling company that is a part of UKFPRS, says the scheme should work on a non-profit basis ensuring that farmers can give away their recycled plastic at no additional cost. The project also aims to train farmers on how to reduce their waste plastic pollution and provide a better estimate of how much agricultural plastic is currently being collected and recycled.

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