Plastic Fantastic? Thinking about plastics on the plot

Kate Harrison muses on the topical issue of plastics in the garden and shares her personal practical advice on how to address it.

Plastic – friend or foe? We have all seen, or at least heard of, the Blue Planet documentary illustrating the terrible effect plastic is having on our oceans. Thanks to ‘the David Attenborough effect’, many gardeners, especially those committed to organic gardening, are reflecting on their use of plastic on the plot. Could we be without it? There are so many ways in which plastic helps us to grow healthy, pest-free crops, yet we know single use plastic is a waste of resources and is poisoning our soil. I often dig up small pieces of plastic which are years old, and I worry about plastic in weed suppressant mesh breaking down into unmanageable fragments.
Considering my own use, I’ve structured my thoughts around the well-known phrase ‘reduce, re-use and recycle’. Remember that these are in an order of priority – reducing our use of plastic is better than re-using it, which is in turn better than recycling. And all of those are better than putting more plastic into landfill, or worse still, to be swept into the sea or in tiny pieces in our own plots.

I’ve reduced my consumption of plastic in a few ways:

  • Bulk buying compost from the Brighton Community Compost centre. Shared with my co-workers, or even buying a cubic metre all for myself, it saves on dozens of plastic bags, and costs less.
  • Using alternative seedling pots – such as toilet roll inners, folded underneath to hold the soil, empty egg shells, newspaper pots, or buying seedling pots made from cardboard or plant material.
  • Using cloth bags to carry my veggie crops home – I used to use old carrier bags, but since the ban on single use bags, I barely have any. The cloth bags can be easily washed, and I’ve also found some mesh bags for smaller amounts, which can also be used instead of plastic bags when occasionally buying veggies in the supermarket.

I’ve recently been thinking more about micro-plastics on the plot, such as the plastic used to bond some teabags, or the tiny pieces of plastic created by strimming which must invisibly litter our land. I haven’t found solutions to all of this yet; perhaps I need to use loose-leaf tea, or seek out the companies which don’t use plastic in their bags, and start buying the biodegradeable strimmer line. Or start scything.

Re-using anything is the allotmenteer’s speciality. One of the things I love about walking round an allotment site is the creative re-use of redundant items, whether growing strawberries in old welly boots, making nest boxes out of old teapots, or building an entire shed out of old doors. When it comes to plastic, this is where I feel we need to revise our view about whether plastic is always a ‘foe’ to the plot holder. Strong plant pots, seed trays, slug traps and potato sacks can last for decades; enviromesh for keeping off cabbage and carrot fly can be used year after year, seed labels can be cleaned and used again. A good winter job is to wash pots, trays and even plastic seed labels to help reduce risk of disease transmission.
Buying tools second-hand, maintaining them, sharing tools with our neighbours, all of this helps to cut down on re-purchasing and waste. One of my favourite re-useable items is the plastic bottle. I’m trying to cut down on my use of plastic at home, but nonetheless I still accumulate a fair number of bottles in a year. I cut the bottoms off, remove the lids and bury them neck-down next to courgettes, squash, tomatoes and other thirsty plants as a perfect watering chamber. In last year’s fearsome drought, the soil cracked and hardened around my bottle-waterers, yet I was able to get sustaining water to the roots of my squash, losing very little to surface evaporation, and encouraging the roots to grow deep. There are some even cleverer (and prettier) ideas on line.  Small bottles can be used to top canes, white plastic milk bottles can be cut into plant labels, bottles could even be made into greenhouses.
This year I’ve experimented with making slug defences by cutting rings out of big bottles and sticking copper tape from the Pound Shop around them – a cheap version of those expensive copper rings you can buy on line. Time will tell if they work.
Recycling is probably the most troubling element of our use of plastic in the garden, as very little of our commonly-used garden plastic will be recyclable. Black plastic cannot be recycled, and other plastic needs to be clean. I’m hoping, after all of the above, that we will have little to recycle, and that we make sure that all the plastic we bring on to the plot we either re-use, recycle or dispose of safely, to keep it from littering our plots.
I’d love to know what other ideas people have for creative ways of reducing, re-using and recycling plastic on our plots.

BHOGG is interested in that too so if you have a plastic-busting idea, do get in touch.

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