It litters our landscapes and pervades our soils, our seas, our atmosphere – and our plots. Tackling gardening’s dependency on plastic requires some radical new thinking.
More moons ago than I dare count, I played my part in creating one of the most urgent and pernicious crises now bearing down on the living world. It’s a crisis that’s been brewing, fragmenting and swilling for a long time. It’s one that’s now polluting our air, soil, water and food, and is a ubiquitous eyesore in all of our lives.
My contribution was made during my days working for a gardening magazine, when we sat around a table dreaming up ideas for what publishers call ‘cover mounts’: think gloves or packets of seeds, either stuck to the front cover, or rattling around inside a wrapper. These freebies boost sales at key times, such as spring, help retain existing readers, and hook new ones. Free seeds (we did those too) are still the stalwart gardening giveaway, delivering tangible delight – aka plants. Many of the other ideas we dreamt up (or more like dredged up) make me wince, but one brainwave – which actually got stuck to the cover of Garden Answers – still gives me landfill-stalked nightmares: the plastic hoe.
I can’t recall how we got there, but giving away a bright green Dutch-style hoe head, to fix to your own wooden handle, seemed a good wheeze at the time. A plastic blade (that couldn’t be sharpened) that was supposed to slice through weeds and soil, and survive being hit against stones and rocks… Needless to say we had to replace some that didn’t stay the course of an afternoon’s hoeing, but we sent tens of thousands of them out into the world. I cringe to think where they all are now. Some will, hopefully, have been recycled, but most are probably entombed underground along with other human detritus. Any left in the sun will long have perished, shattering into countless fragments. If that weren’t bad enough, the next month we gave away a plastic half-moon lawn edger… and we were just one magazine among many others doing similar stuff.
We didn’t think then about the global epidemic that plastic pollution is today. I’d like to be able to report that gardening and the industry behind it have moved on, but if anything it’s worse than ever. You only have to visit garden retailers where plastic destined-to-last-a-day tools are commonplace, check the sundries section of mail order catalogues, or watch the cringeworthy shopping channels to realise that our gardens, allotments and greenhouses are drowning in plastic. Some of it is useful, but a lot is useless, and much is pure tat. Much of what we order from catalogues arrives swaddled in plastic (despite recycled compostable paper packaging being available). There is a glint of progress on the mail order gardening front: an increasing number of paper catalogues are now arriving sans plastic wrappers.
Our living world is drowning in plastic pollution, too. Tiny ‘microplastics’, the degraded, ground-down fragments of larger objects, have recently been detected in drinking water across the world. These tiny specks of man-made pollution, which themselves can absorb synthetic pollutants, are so small they’re eaten by fish, and then by whatever eats that fish (which could be you). Oceans across the world are swilling in discarded, forgotten plastic debris. It pollutes our soils and our air. It blights a walk in the remotest countryside. It reaches the beaches of the least inhabited places on earth and chokes the stomachs of the birds and other sea life living there. Plastic (and other) rubbish ejected from our vehicles adorns a litter-strewn road network in a damning indictment of our selfish, ecologically reckless times. Fields next to roads are dotted with ploughed-in plastic trash. Every time we wash clothing (or that muddy piece of garden fleece) made from synthetic fibres, or use cosmetics containing ‘microbeads’, we send largely invisible plastic pollution down the drain.
Ironically, organic and earth-friendly gardening has played its part – albeit unsuspectingly – in adding to this planet-wide plastic soup. How many times have we been urged to reuse yoghurt pots, cut washing-up liquid bottles into strips for plant labels, or turn fizzy drinks bottles into mini cloches (or even whole school ‘greenhouses’)? Good intentions drove these suggestions, but we forgot that everyday plastics don’t come with the additives that protect gardening products (such as plant pots and polytunnel covers) from the degrading effect of ultraviolet radiation. A few months or perhaps just weeks exposed to sunlight, and many single-use plastics turn into shards. All plastics degrade eventually, but at least gardening products have, in theory, some extra longevity when out in the sun all day.
Plastic is undeniably useful in the garden, just as it is elsewhere in our lives. But in the midst of a pollution crisis stretching from the depths of our oceans to the taps in our kitchens, a step-change is urgently needed. We aren’t going to crack this with ‘consumer pressure’ or chirpy social media campaigns imploring us to ‘go plastic-free in your garden!’. I’m with gardeners pushing against the plastic tide, but we’re not dealing with breakers on the shore – this is a polluting tsunami that’s gaining by the day. Yes, we can be diligent, making sure we recycle plastic stuff when it’s done its job. Yes, we can take pots back to our local garden centre (if they take them). Yes, we can buy quality recycled UK-made plastic products (if clearly labelled), stimulating demand for those mountains of ‘waste’ plastic waiting to be turned to good use. But in the end, it’s still plastic.
It’s time for the gardening industry as a whole to dig deep into its collective soul and decide whether it wants to continue being part of the plastic pollution crisis, or become a key player in finding a solution. The usual abdication of responsibility – ‘consumers can make a better choice’ – just doesn’t cut this mustard; plastic is everywhere in our gardening lives and – unless I’ve missed it – we’re left with little or no way of avoiding it. As gardeners we can’t solve this from the bottom up, so it’s now time for a top-down rethink (especially of plastic tat).
But there is something we can all do this autumn, especially in a greenhouse, which will make a modest difference: clear it of all not-in-use plastic. It’s so tempting to use a greenhouse (or polytunnel) as a convenient dumping ground for just about everything when autumn sets in. ‘I’ll put it away later’ soon gets forgotten as frosts take hold, and before we know it a spring clear-out is upon us. Getting pots and other containers, hanging baskets, trays, labels, sheeting, ground cover fabric, and anything else made of plastic into the sunless recesses of your shed, garage or other shady spot is the best way of prolonging their useful life. You must get them out of even the weak winter sun – and never leave them in it again. Recycle what’s past its best; many recycling centres take the so-called ‘hard plastic’ that we tend to accumulate. And stop saving those yoghurt pots…
Should you happen upon a bright green plastic hoe head, or a half-moon edger, gathering cobwebs at the back of your garden shed, think of me. I’ll still be wincing.
Text and images © John Walker
Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener