Gardening Without Plastics

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Replace plastic with reusable woven row cover cloth

Because Every Day Is Earth Day

Plastic. Say the word and someone will start talking about Dustin Hofmann and The Graduate. Actually, that used to be a typical response. Now, the very word is more likely to start a conversation about recycling, about ocean plastic contamination. Or about whales dying with bellies full of plastic. Or about sea turtles dying wrapped in discarded plastic fishing nets. Or birds dying with jaws wrapped in plastic 6-pack carrier strips. Or straws on beaches. Very rarely does the list of woes and horrors extend to the gardening world, but seriously, it should.

Years ago, when I became the manager of a lovely, family-run independent nursery, I remember being so excited about the opportunity to replace toxic horticultural chemicals with natural care alternatives. We did that, and it was a huge success. We even created  accredited programs for nursery staffers, landscapers, and municipal grounds keepers who wanted to learn how to use these new (or old) natural care products and techniques on every scale, from backyards to schools, city parks, and golf courses. Those years were amazing times; all over the country and the world, people wanted to find better, safer, wiser ways to care for their lawns and gardens. Fabulous!

The Bright Side Of The Dark Side

Around that same time, I discovered an enormous mountain of plastic trash tucked away in a back corner of the nursery. Heaps of brittle old plastic sheeting that came off the greenhouses. Plastic row cover, cracked and discolored. Vast numbers of plastic plant labels and signage. Mound after mound of plastic pots. Hundreds and thousands of them. And it turned out that nearly every commercial nursery had an equivalent area. I remember sitting on a nearby bench with tears running down my face as I struggled to figure out how to work with this horrible legacy.

I eventually discovered that in Oregon, a family run business called Agri-Plas had been working very hard to recycle a wide range of nursery waste plastics. They found manufacturers who would buy clean, dry plastic of many kinds, but to make recycling practical, they had to train workers to sort nursery pots and containers by plastic type. Since nursery pots were not labeled at that time, we all needed to learn how each kind of plastic looks and feels. Our willing staff quickly mastered this and we were able to load pallet after pallet with sorted pots and other plastic waste. Agri-Plas would come by every few months to pick them up, and within a year, the plastic graveyard was cleaned up.

Time To Take Responsibility

I talked about the Agri-Plas service to nurseries all over the West Coast and for a while, this recycling effort was wildly successful. However, the honeymoon ended as nurseries decided they couldn’t afford the time to train staff or pay them to sort pots. To make matters worse, international markets for recycled plastics started to tank as national and international transportation costs rose. Most recently, China (the biggest purchaser of used plastics) announced that they will no longer accept the world’s trash. Since we had grown accustomed to sending our plastic trash overseas, suddenly there are very few options for recycling small nursery plastics. Some communities are still collecting recycling but putting it into landfill sites if they can’t find a market for it. Other places simply dropped their recycling programs.

If you want to find better options near you, contact your local disposal company. If they don’t have helpful suggestions, call your County Solid Waste Division. If we don’t ask and keep asking, our municipalities will assume that we don’t care what happens to our plastic trash. And we do, right? Right? So here’s some good news; it’s getting easier to find alternatives to plastic all the time. In a one-minute search online, I found many kinds and sizes of trash and garden waste bags made from recycled paper, from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic, from all-recycled paper, and/or biodegradable, plant-based plastic, and many more options. So why aren’t these products everywhere? One guess: They cost more than mass-produced, single use plastic bags of any size or kind. When we’re used to paying almost nothing for large amounts of something we are only going to throw away, there’s a pretty significant sticker shock factor.

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

But let’s think this through. How much are we willing/able to pay for a week’s worth of trash bags? And how many do we need, anyway? There is a significant price break when we buy these ecologically responsible products in bulk, as we might at a big box store. If we buy a package of 30 eco-cool bags, we might pay around a buck a pop. If we only use a bag or two a few times a year, that’s probably not going to break the bank. If we use a lot more, we can buy a package of 144 or even 288 and pay more like 30 cents a bag. Since the same bags can be used for indoor trash as well, that kind of investment in the health of the planet might feel more comfortable.

We can also make an effort to reduce plastic garden waste. If we buy compost and potting soil in single use plastic bags, we can see if they can be recycled locally (see below for ideas). If not, at least we can reuse them by filling them with trash instead of buying yet another trash bag. And let’s pay good attention when discarding garden detritus like flimsy pony-packs that can break down into tiny shreds. Old bird netting is especially dangerous for birds if left lying around (or blowing away). Just like plastic fish netting, encounters with garden netting can be fatal for wildlife, from birds, turtles, frogs and fish to larger aquatic animals such as seals, otters and yes, whales. To dispose of old netting, carefully bundle it up, securing it with string. Now stuff it into one of those empty potting soil bags and fasten THAT with string before tossing.

Open Our Eyes And Mouths

One recent trend that makes me mad is packaging garden fertilizers and care products in plastic instead of cardboard boxes. This especially gets me going when companies selling ORGANIC products are doing this. Please join me in writing or calling these companies; there’s always a toll-free number on the package, so feel free to call every hour or so…

So can any plastic bags truly be recycled now? Yes, though it can be tricky to find locations where plastic bags are accepted. Clean, dry, single use bags can be turned into plastic “lumber”, playground sets, chairs and benches. Some companies even re-make them into reusable shopping bags. How can you find out where to take them? Again, check with your local disposal and recycling agency or call city hall and ask that this info be put on the city website. Or all of the above! How about a community project, working with a nearby manufacturer and a coalition of kids, or old women like me, to get plastic bags to a place they can be useful?

Pots, Pots, Pots

And about those pots: It’s quite easy to avoid plastic if we seek out small pots for seed starting that are biodegradable, or made from paper pulp, coir fiber, or even DIY newspaper versions. And don’t forget that sturdy garden pots (preferably made from recycled plastic) can be reused many times. I sort mine by size and kind after use, then store them in the flats they fit best. When I’m ready to start my seeds, I’ve got a ready supply of pots, and I use them again and again for potting up garden-worthy volunteers, native seedlings and shared extra starts from neighbors.

Got more? Check with growers at your local Farmers Market; many willingly take clean, dry 4-inch and gallon pots for reuse. The 4-inchers are most welcome if sorted by size and kind so they fit plant flats properly. Check too with with folks who regularly put on plant sales, from Master Gardeners to Land Trusts and Native Plant Societies. Some nurseries, including many Lowe’s stores, offer pot-swap bins; again, they accept anything from 4-inch up to tree pots if clean and sorted by size and type, and I’m assured that very little gets thrown out, as the exchange rate is very favorable. Onward!

This entry was posted in Garden Prep, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Planting & Transplanting, Recycling Nursery Plastics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Gardening Without Plastics

  1. Diane Hooper says:

    Thank you for this column about plastics. I just ran a couple of large bags over to Saki for their plastic-round-up!
    This is such a good article about all the dang plastic all over the place. I keep thinking what did we do in the ’50’s when there was barely any plastic out there. I use as little as absolutely possible. I use what I cal, shower-caps” to cover my food and then wash to reuse.
    I tear my hair out when I look into our Chatham Cove dumpster and recycle bins! Crazy making!!
    Keep up the excellent work!
    Diane xox

  2. l danielle brown says:

    Hi: I’ve just subscribed to this blog because I’m seeking a recommendation on organic ways to annihilate English Ivy along a shared fence line, but I happened on this article first and want to share something.

    There’s a company toiletries called Organic Essence that has committed zero plastic packaging. (I don’t work for them.) . They have an interesting short mission statement at the link that follows, that talks about the kind of bolt from the blue they got, that decided them that plastic packaging for an ethical goods company was self defeating.

    That having been said, thank you for writing this article. Would it be inappropriate for this venue for me to post a link to Beth Terry’s blog which has a list of the first 100 steps to take to kick the plastic habit?


    Danielle Brown

  3. hb says:

    Unfortunately the oil industry sees plastics as the replacement market for gasoline as the world (hopefully) transitions from gasoline powered vehicles to electric.

    While we consumers can do our best to reuse, reduce, recycle, as you point out, product manufacturers also need to make an effort to reduce packaging EVERYTHING in massive amounts of plastic.

    California has banned single use plastic grocery bags and now plastic straws must be requested not automatically handed out at restaurants, but plastic beverage bottles are the next overwhelming problem. Every morning on our walk we pick up plastic bottles, packages, etc laying everywhere and put them in the trash, so they don’t end up in the nearby ocean. Teenagers today have never learned the “don’t be a litterbug’ that was so well promoted back in the 1960’s.

    Thanks for bringing attention to this problem. We all need to do better. Our poor, ravaged planet…

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