Agricultural plastic is just as harmful as ocean plastic

The first U.N. Ocean Conference in five years ended recently in Lisbon, Portugal, with Secretary-General António Guterres calling for a global commitment by businesses, governments and individuals to do more to preserve and protect the planet’s seas.

But why aren’t governments meeting to discuss the agricultural plastic emergency?

According to a U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) report on plastics in agriculture, the world’s soil is likely more filled with plastic pollution than the oceans are.

Related: U.N. will push ahead with first ever legally-binding treaty to cut plastic waste

The report says that “commonly used agricultural products, such as non-biodegradable plastic mulching films, greenhouse films and polymer-coated slow-release fertilizers, have a tendency to break down in the soil, leaving behind pieces of plastic ranging in size from large to microscopic. These pieces have unknown, yet potentially detrimental, implications for ecosystems and human health.”

Read: Plastic was found in human blood for the first time. Is this a public health risk?

One of the major milestones is the U.N. Plastic Treaty Roadmap drafted earlier this year. The effort, a first of its kind and titled “End plastic pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument” is expected to be made final by 2024. It focuses on the full lifecycle of plastic, including production, design and waste. The agreement, if enforced two years from now as legally binding, is expected to be a major blow to oil
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and chemicals
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companies that make plastic and prefer to steer the plastic conversation centered on waste instead of the original packaging contents.

Commonly used agricultural products, such as non-biodegradable plastic mulching films, greenhouse films and polymer-coated slow-release fertilizers, have a tendency to break down in the soil, leaving behind pieces of plastic ranging in size from large to microscopic.


— U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization

Plastic is essential to farmers, foresters and fishers from mulching and irrigation to fishing gear and greenhouse films. Polymers of various types can help farmers, foresters and fishers maintain livelihoods, enhance production, reduce crop loss and conserve water, which can all aid in food security.

However, in today’s conventional farming practices, it is common to use non-recyclable LDPE plastics (low-density polyethylene or plastic number 4) in orchards and vineyards. It is also well known that LDPE can degrade and leach when left in the sunlight for an extended period of time.

Read: Recycling is confusing — how to be smarter about all that takeout plastic

Many farms use huge amounts of LDPE plastic as rain covering for their crops which ends up burned or dumped in landfills after only one use. The environmental consequences from either final destination are clearly detrimental to the atmosphere and the environment. We are talking about thousands of miles of non-recyclable plastic under current conventional practices.

When speaking about land stewardship, which is more responsible: Do we continue to farm under old practices, or embrace new technology that is environmentally responsible?

We are producing twice as much plastic waste as we did 20 years ago, with the majority ending up in landfills, burned or leaking into the environment, and only 9% actually recycled.


— OECD

Global brands should be focusing on the highest and best use of plastics in agricultural food production. We need alternatives, such as long lasting HDPE (high density polyethylene) solutions, for example. These help move farm ground away from microplastic leaching. Long-term solutions using better materials also cap farming expenses at the outset, which is attractive to a farmer’s bottom line and ultimately keeps the shelf prices of food stable.

According to a recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, we are producing twice as much plastic waste as we did 20 years ago, with the majority ending up in landfills, burned or leaking into the environment while only 9% is actually recycled. The report reveals how plastic pollution is growing rapidly with as recycling and waste management failing to keep up. The report is the first Global Plastics Outlook and argues that higher populations and subsequent global incomes are increasing the amount of global plastic being used and disposed as countries own policies can’t successfully slow leakage into the environment.

Long-term plastic solutions using better materials also cap farming expenses at the outset, which is attractive to a farmer’s bottom line and ultimately keeps the shelf prices of food stable.

Fortunately, new technologies are solving the circularity of plastic to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels
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Circularity is the ability to more efficiently use plastic (or any resource) by keeping material in use for as long as possible, getting the most from repeat use, and then recovering the material to make new products. Once candidate for circularity is polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It’s a clear, strong and lightweight plastic that is widely used for packaging foods and beverages, especially convenience-sized soft drinks, juices and water. Virtually all single-serving and 2-liter bottles of carbonated soft drinks and water sold in the U.S. are made from PET.

Sustainable ag initiatives are critical to meeting our food needs without compromising our farmers’ ability to prosper. Increasing yields while reducing negative environmental impacts is now possible using new technologies and optimizing existing resources, including sunlight.

The global business community has to lead the way in order for countries to finally turn the corner in the reduction of plastic pollution with technology, innovation, better product design and developing environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional materials and practices. With efforts underway to improve waste management and increase recycling, climate goals might actually be achieved.

Jonathan Destler is founder of Opti-Harvest, which creates light-altering filters and a software monitoring system to assist farmers in increasing the yield from their planted crops.

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