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The Biggest Source of Plastic Trash You’ve Never Heard Of

From acres of sheeting to miles of twine, farms use billions of pounds of plastic each year. What can we do to reduce the impact?

“Seed trays, drip tape, mulch film, water pipes, hoop house covers, twine, hose, fertilizer bags, totes, tool handles and everything we use to keep ourselves dry.” On a rainy March afternoon, Kara Gilbert, co-owner of Vibrant Valley Farm, rattles off how plastics are used on the farm as she stamps mud off her boots. On a visit to the four-acre farm on lush Sauvie Island at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers near Portland, Ore., Gilbert gives me a tour de farm plastics. The fields are just being readied for the season, but black plastic is already laid out under a hoop house. PVC water pipes are being set into place and drip irrigation tape is ready to be deployed, as are plastic sacks of fertilizer. Out in the greening field, little orange-pink plastic plant tags on ankle-high stakes flap in the wet breeze to mark rows of just-sprouted peas. By farming standards, this is a tiny operation. It sells organic produce to 15 or so local restaurants and through community-supported-agriculture shares, and grows flowers it sells wholesale. But even this small farm, Gilbert says, spends between $4,000 and $6,000 on plastic every year. Maybe more. It’s an environmental trade-off, she explains: Using plastic means saving water. “In our very fickle climate, if we want to have a local food movement and want to compete with California and Mexico, it’s almost imperative that we have the black plastic,” Gilbert says. “Plastic film or road cloth is a weed suppressant,” explains farm co-owner Elaine Walker. “Black plastic can retain heat and moisture so you don’t need to water as much and you can grow things in the off season.” Plastic buckets and barrels at Vibrant Valley Farm Whether it’s this small organic farm coaxing an impressive yield out of a few acres in Oregon or a large conventional operation somewhere else in the world, plastic is a huge part of modern agriculture — a multi-billion-dollar worldwide industry, according toPenn State Extension. Billions of pounds are used around the world each year, with much of the plastic designed for one season’s use. There’s a growing recognition by farmers and others in the agricultural community of the need for environmentally responsible disposal solutions for these materials. The question, though, is how to do that with materials that are designed to not break down in rain, sun and heat, and that can — if burned or left to degrade — poseenvironmental health hazards. Big Numbers Really good numbers on the amount of plastic used in agriculture are hard to come by, but experts in the field, including Gene Jones of the Southern Waste Information eXchange, estimate that U.S. agriculture alone uses about a billion pounds annually. This includes films — used for mulch, greenhouse covers, and to wrap bales, tubing and pipes. It also includes nursery containers, pesticide containers, silage bags, storage covers, twine and more. Specialized products figure into the mix as well. Farmers in cooler regions use plastic to enhance warmth, for example, while in the southern U.S. farmers use plastic to cool soil and plants. “There’s some reflective, some colored plastic, but all deal with the sun at different times of year,” says Jeremy Nipper, sales representative for Kennco Manufacturing, a Florida-based farm machinery company whose products include equipment to deploy agricultural plastics and collect and dispose of used field plastics. Plastic films laid down on planting rows also helps keep fertilizer from running off fields when it rains. And, as Walker explains, plastic mulch films helps suppress weeds. Worldwide, the agricultural plastic film market alone was estimated to be worth $5.87 billion in 2012. That year’s global demand, according to one market analyst, was more than 9.7 million pounds, with about 40 percent of this being used in mulching. China is estimated to be the world’s largest consumer of agricultural plastic films, using about 60 percent of all such plastic. “Horticulture and vegetables use an astonishing amount,” says Nate Leonard, field coordinator for Cornell University’s Recycling Agricultural Plastics Program. Read more at Ensia.com