Plastic in the Garden: Good or Bad?

Plastic in the Garden -- Good or Evil

Earlier this year I had a conversation with my friend Craig of Permie Flix after he asked about plastic in the garden in the comments of my video on making potting soil:

“I noticed you used a plastic tarp, bag, and bag pots. Most gardeners are cheapskates and do similar. What are your thoughts on plastic use in gardening?”

I answered:

“I go back and forth on plastic. I hate throwing it away. I do like the DeWitt/Sunbelt woven nursery fabric for occultation of new beds/no-till. Water comes through from the top but not light. Plus, the stuff will last a decade or so. It’s a pretty good trade-off. As for pots, discarded metal soup cans with holes punched in them work okay. Clay is too expensive. I just don’t see anything other than plastic for nursery work being feasible at this point. These plastic bag pots last for a few years and cost a few cents.”

Craig in turn raises some good points:

“Plastic is so useful in ag, and everyone seems to be using plastic green houses, plastic mulch, and fabric row covers like the DeWitt/Sunbelt. Plastic fertilizer bags, plastic pots, fabric pots, plastic trays, plastic irrigation, plastic totes. That’s a lot of plastic in ag. I’ve just been wondering what the Earth’s carry capacity for plastic might be before ecosystems are irreversibly damaged, and how much is acceptable, because I can’t see it’s use going away, only accelerating. I’ve read that the doubling time for plastic is around every 11 years. And that there are end-of-life problems like toxic materials such as heavy metals that leach out of the plastic as the products decay over a span of years. Tad at KIS organics wrote an interesting post about fabric pots last year containing lead and BPA among other things: https://www.kisorganics.com/blogs/news/fabric-pots This week I’ve read two articles, one on the isolated Henderson Island that was found to have 671.6 items per square metre of debris on North Beach, 99.8% of which were plastic. And another that showed of 17 brands of sea salt only one had no microplastic in it. Previous studies in Sydney harbour showed >30% of the mullet sampled had microplastics in their guts, and over 90% of seabirds feast on plastic and then defecate it on land. It’s also entering our soils through ag and municipal compost. I know that worm growth rate is significantly reduced at 28% w/w microplastics and that they distribute microplastics in their casts throughout soils. Considering that plastic was only synthesised in 1907, I’m on the go back side of plastic use and planting directly in the ground where possible. But like you mentioned there aren’t many other options for nursery work if you want to save your back and pocket. And I can’t see consumer demand for biodegradable products making a dent in regulatory or commercial practices anytime soon either.”

Dang it, Craig, why do you have to be so smart?

It really is a conundrum. I would certainly like to go without using plastic, yet sometimes there really isn’t a better option.

What About Other Options?

Back in Florida people used to ask me, “What about soil blocks for transplants?”

They’re great except Florida’s “soil” won’t hold together. It’s like beach sand. You have to get some clay from somewhere else to make them stick. And with the time involved in hunting materials, you might as well get some plastic trays.

When I ran my plant nursery, many of my pots were scavenged from other nurseries. I reused pots over and over again and would give extra plants to people that brought back pots after planting my plants in their gardens . . .

. . . yet eventually those pots would wear out and be thrown away.

I don’t like the large amount of plastic ending up in the environment. It’s everywhere. Even recycling may not make sense as I’ve read it takes more energy to recycle plastic than it does to just throw it in a landfill.

Yet try building a greenhouse without plastic! If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to scavenge old windows, but still—the construction is much more time-consuming than just throwing up a plastic sheet.

But eventually that plastic wears out and is discarded.

And what about your rain barrel or cistern? Did you cast one out of concrete? Plastic is a lot cheaper and easier.

Tough.

Getting Rid of Plastic?

It’s tempting to burn plastic to get rid of it, but that releases some nasty toxins into the air.

“Current research indicates that backyard-burning of waste is far more harmful to our health than previously thought. It can increase the risk of heart disease, aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema, and cause rashes, nausea, or headaches, damages in the nervous system, kidney or liver, in the reproductive and development system.

The burning of polystyrene polymers—such as foam cups, meat trays, egg containers, yogurt and deli containers—releases styrene. Styrene gas can readily be absorbed through the skin and lungs. At high levels styrene vapor can damage the eyes and mucous membranes. Long-term exposure to styrene can affect the central nervous system, causing headaches, fatigue, weakness,
and depression.”
Yeah, that’s no fun. You can also burn yourself if you run through the ashes barefoot. My little brother did that when he was a kid, stepping on a piece of molten plastic and burning his heel badly.
Takeaway: don’t run through molten plastic and ashes barefoot.
no-bare-feet-on-fire plastic in the garden - dont burn it
That brother is a firefighter now. No kidding.

All burning of plastic may not be bad, however. There may be the possibility of using plastic as fuel in the near future:

“Burning plastic in the traditional manner creates extremely polluting byproducts, as evidenced by the black smoke produced by the cup. But this didn’t thwart Levendis, who noted that plastic contains the same amount of energy per pound as premium fuel.

“We wanted to tackle the problem by preprocessing the plastics,” said Chuanwei Zhuo, a doctoral candidate in Levendis’ lab. Toward that end, the team developed a combustion system that adds a simple step to the burning process that allows for turning plastic into a fuel that burns just as cleanly as natural gas.

That simple step has a daunting name: pyrolytic gasification. Instead of directly setting the cup aflame with a match in the open air, the team’s reactor heats the material to a whopping 800 degrees Celsius in a completely oxygen-free environment. This causes the plastic to become a gas, which is then mixed with air before it is burned as a clean fuel.”

So is Plastic in the Garden Good or Evil?

Realistically, it’s probably evil—yet it’s an evil without good alternatives right now, at least that I can find.

And sometimes it’s an “evil” that is so useful it might push on through to being good. Herrick Kimball’s “Minibeds on Plastic” gardening idea, for instance.

That’s pretty impressive.

Plastic, though! Plastic! It’s a conundrum.

I like it when people like Craig ask, “have you thought about . . . ?”

I’ll keep thinking about plastic in the garden. I’m still on the fence. I don’t like the environmental impact, but I also don’t know what else to use. Greenhouses, pots, weed barriers, cisterns, row covers . . . plastic everywhere!

So, what are your thoughts?

 

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David The Good


Contributor

David The Good is a Grow Network Change Maker, a gardening expert, and the author of four books you can find on Amazon: Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening, Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening, and Create Your Own Florida Food Forest. His upcoming book Push the Zone explores growing tropical edibles outside the tropics. Find fresh gardening inspiration at his website http://www.TheSurvivalGardener.com and be sure to follow his popular YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/davidthegood.


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21 Comments
  • Janine Rickard

    I think it is crazy to be thinking that plastic in the garden is a good idea, if you care about health and the environment. I do use it because it’s cheap and convenient, but I try to reduce it wherever possible, and collectively, we should be phasing it out as soon as possible.

    The future for innovation in materials is wide open. Look at how clever they’ve been using compressed paper instead of styrofoam form packing materials. Obviously many biodegradable sheetings and containers could be invented, with varying degrees of durability.

    Innovative organic gardeners within a community that can manufacture these things locally would be ideal.

  • FarmGal

    Let’s take another look at hemp. It can be grown anywhere that corn or tobacco will go, is beneficial in many ways, including packaging, and is not toxic to us or the environment and does not require chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. Did you know that Henry Ford used hemp for the body of his early cars? And it is a better source material for paper? Yet hemp was outlawed to protect monopolies on plastics, synthetic fabrics, forestry, etc. It’s crooked politicians, once again, at the cause.

    There are doubtless other methods yet to be discovered.

    A doctor in Europe has developed a reliable test for the amount of plastics in our bodies, yet the FDA forbids this test here in the USA and have done everything they can to stop it, even in Europe. My friend found out she was full of plastic, which was the root cause of her cancer. This doctor was working of developing ways to eliminate it from our bodies, but once in the cells, it is very difficult to remove. We are deliberately kept in the dark about the extent of our poisoning.

  • Gloria

    What about peat pots?

  • Richard Frost

    Well, one thing about the coming collapse of civilizations and the end of oil – won’t be so much disgusting plastic being made !?

  • Honey

    FYI, soil blocks don’t need clay. Basically they’re made of extra-wet potting soil.

    I agree with Janine. Cardboard and burlap or cotton and other natural fabric won’t last as long but can be great substitutes for many of these uses. Except for that greenhouse.

  • Catherine Beu

    Hi Marjorie & David, What about using egg cartons to start seedlings in? Organic eggs come in repurposed paper cartons, probably essentially cardboard. I know you & David grow your own eggs, but purchasing some store bought cartons once in awhile for the carton might not be a bad idea.
    But then I have a problem with cardboard. Of course everyone uses it for mulch. But it is made with a whole lot of toxic glues, etc. Google how cardboard is made. Ah modern life. solving one problem to create another. But I see a post on hemp below & there are other natural substances I’ve heard about that can replace plastic & cardboard. Just can’t remember them right now. My brain is too full of plastic!

  • C Kent

    Use cardboard under the beds instead of plastic. Takes time finding enough but it is friendly to the environment.

  • Mark

    Plastic use is indeed a conundrum for those who wish to protect the environment, but who have limited resources (i.e., the vast majority of us!). I think it’s important that we continue to think about this problem and minimize the use of plastics whenever we can.

  • Doug

    I use cardboard

  • Georgenna

    Was the area under the beds solid (no holes or slits) plastic? If so, do beds for potatoes, turnips, and carrots need to be higher-walked to give space for tuber and root growth?

  • Ayn

    My friend and I are using paper feed bags to grow in. They deteriorate in time, but can usually get a season out of them. We also flatten them and use for ground cover/mulch for grass and weed control. They work pretty well and when you pull back the cover, there are always tons of earthworms underneath.

    • Irina

      Love this idea! I’m going to start using them as well👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻

    • Rachael

      I do the same thing! I also always ask for paper bags when available at the grocery store. I actually have begun to shop only at places that offer paper instead of plastic. I cut down the sides of the bag to make it flat, then use it as you would cardboard or plastic in the garden bed.

  • Irina

    I love the hemp idea. It will solve numerous problems. I also think we should look back into history and see how the natives used to farm and garden without plastic.

  • Olive Kaiser

    Uh, most plastics have additives that are estrogen mimics/endocrine disruptors. They are, to be totally unpolitally correct, gender benders, and are causing babies’ genes, anatomy, hormones, identity and attractions to be altered. In short they are making our children intersex/transgender and same sex attracted, etc as well as messing with the thyroid and other glands in other ways. And It’s the very tiny exposures in utero (Could it be after birth also I some situations?? ) that can cause these alterations because those levels fall within biological range. So it confuses the body.

    We need to find better answers. What did they do before they had plastic?

    • TCLynx

      While yes, plastics and some of the things in plastics are likely messing with our bodies and hormones and stuff, I really don’t think we can “blame” plastics for ” intersex/transgender and same sex attracted, etc” since such things are definitely NOT new to the modern era.

    • Antonio

      Estrogen like chemicals don’t do their damage by altering genes. Which isn’t to say there are no carcinogens/mutagens in plastics.

      Hormone mimicking chemicals in the environment (and actual hormones excreted by those on prescriptions) seem to be increasing the frequency of hermaphroditic amphibians and may be reducing fertility in humans, but soy and other sources of phytoestrogens my be more to blame than plastic.

      There is no increase in the rate of birth of lgbtq people, not that it would in anyway be a bad thing if there were.

  • Mary Ann

    I advertised for moldy hay at a Feed Store and got 10 bales of 20. Not perfect, but it works.

  • Paul

    i like the hemp idea… I like the idea of making pots out of anything organic that has fiber, even thin wood strips like a frail basket.

    I do not like plastics at all, in any form. I think plastics are horrible for all people, animals, plants, oceans, etc. The only people they are good for are those in the petroleum industry. Granted, I can also see the benefit in the medical field as plastics have improved health care in many ways. In an ironic twist, plastics are also killing people and the environment.

    I say avoid plastics everywhere, as much as possible. That takes effort and thinking and discipline and effort and not being lazy and effort and more effort. But the bottom line is this… it’s plastic, it’s toxic to everything, it degrades, water leaches the toxins out of it, and the only thing we can do to avoid that it to put it some place where we are ok with that happening (recycling or landfill). If that plastic is in your garden or house or is your water bottle or food storage then you are guaranteed to ingest those toxins that leach out of your plastics.

    Any child can tell you, don’t put poison on your food and don’t store your food and water inside poison. And that really is the bottom line and the truth. In our modern times, cognitive dissonance has replaced common sense, but natural selection is going to remedy that in the end.

    When you think about how much plastic we have in every aspect of our modern lives, it really seems almost impossible to avoid plastics in any meaningful way or quantity. The only advice I have is to look at it as a challenge/puzzle and give it your best effort and hope it’s enough. But never forget to try to have fun with the limited time we have on this rock, in the end, that really is all that mattered.

    Peace, love, and hippy thoughts…

  • Jay

    For annual veggie starts like lettuce and peas, I make paper pots with a commercial pot maker I was given decades ago. It is more time consuming than plastic to start, but since you plant the pot with its contents, transplanting is quick with less disturbance of the roots. It’s important to leave airspace between the paper pots and not over-water them to keep mold down, but I use home-grown compost in the bottom of the pot with a bit of commercial seed starting soil for the top 1/2 inch and have had no damping off problems. I find if I put a thin layer of crushed egg shells at the very bottom it helps discourage root borers and keeps everything in the cole family happy without adding extra lime. I do use “re-used” plastic pots for larger plants particularly when trying to root shrubs or strawberry babies, but I’m hoping that any plastic absorbed by the plant will either be lost to dead leaves, or distributed widely in new growth before there is anything to harvest.
    If any sci-fi gardeners have read “Ring World”, the author predicted that a bacteria would evolve to eat plastic causing the entire industry to collapse. With the way we’ve polluted our waterways/oceans, I’m quite convinced that a bacteria or fungus will evolve to fulfill his prediction! Just read some of Paul Stamets’ work and see if you agree?

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