By now, perhaps you’ve read this article from NPR or a similar one: Recycling Plastic is Practically Impossible. From the article:
“Greenpeace found that no plastic — not even soda bottles, one of the most prolific items thrown into recycling bins — meets the threshold to be called “recyclable” according to standards set by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastic Economy Initiative. Plastic must have a recycling rate of 30% to reach that standard; no plastic has ever been recycled and reused close to that rate.“
Read that again. Plastic is not recyclable. Oof. For those of us who take care to sort out our recyclables, this is hard news to swallow. I read this today and had to spend some time turning it over in my mind. What does this mean for each of us? What does it mean for the choices we make weekly on what to buy or not buy?
Another shocking statistic: the Wisconsin DNR has found that farm and maritime operations in the state “generate 20.4 million pounds of recyclable plastic wrap each year.”
“A 300-head dairy farm using plastic silage bags may produce as much as 6,000 pounds a year of waste plastic.”
A few days ago, I grabbed lunch with my friend Ben. Ben is an organic blueberry farmer in Southern Wisconsin. Ben’s little slice of heaven is on his family’s farm in a rural area which is surrounded by farms but also by rapidly approaching suburban housing developments.
Ben is the type of farmer who is trying to do everything on his farm in the best way possible for the earth. His way of farming is labor intensive and slow-moving. Before he adopts a labor-saving technology, he carefully weighs the pros and cons of adopting it. It isn’t that he is anti-technology or anti-progress; it is that his background in environmental science means he understands that none of these technolgies are without cost.
For his first 5+ years farming, Ben did everything by hand, but this year he no longer could keep up. After much thought, he opted to add drip lines and weed barriers to the long rows of blueberries.
How did Ben come to the decision?
- Weighing the Impact of Chemicals vs. Plastics. The blueberries on the farm are planted in mounds of pine straw which Ben collected and built into berms which he subsequently planted. In addition to acidifying the soil, the pine straw helps to keep the weeds down. But this year the weeds were still winning. Ben realized he’d either need to use chemical herbicides, hire a lot of people to weed, or invest in landscape fabric. Since he has worked hard for organic designation and isn’t yet profitable enough to hire labor, landscape fabric was the best choice of the options he had.
- Researching Recycling Opportunities. Ben was able to find a recycling facility for the landscape fabric he purchased. He did this before he purchased the fabric to ensure that his plastic would become part of that pool of less than 30% of plastic that does get recycled. He has a plan in place and knows what it will take to transport the fabric to the recycler when the day comes.
- Making a Pledge to Care for the Plastic. When we met last week, Ben was planning to spend the weekend removing the new landscape fabric. Why remove it after all of the time it took to install? We live in a harsh climate with cold, snowy winters and a lot of temperature changes. Plastic does not last long outdoors in this environment. By removing the fabric in the fall, storing it inside and replacing it each spring, Ben should be able to add a few more years of life to his landscape fabric, saving himself money and keeping it out of the recycling/garbage stream that much longer.
This last point is the one that got me really thinking about the “Use and Value Renewables” tenant of permaculture. What if the problem isn’t just that we need to value renewables more, but that we need to value plastics more? When we value something, we take care of it. We preserve it as long as we can. We think twice before buying it, because it often costs a little more.
Isn’t this how we should be thinking about plastics? Because, truly, they can be really amazing things. Plastics are light and can be durable. They are more difficult to break than their competitor glass. They can be formed more easily into complex shapes than wood or metal. They can be made in many colors and textures. In Ben’s story, there is no renewable material that will do as well at keeping weeds down as the landscape fabric,.
But plastics also persist in our environment for ever and ever and ever. So what if the answer isn’t to give them up but to use them more concientiously and deliberately than we often do? What if the answer is to value them more when we use them? To buy them conscientiously, take care of them and keep them for as long as possible to reduce their environmental impact?
Something to think about.