Tolly’s rambles: Plastic confessional

This is definitely the latest environmental hot topic and rightly so, too. It’s something we as a food farming business have had on our minds for a very long time. In 2008 I gave a presentation at the Organic Producers conference at the Cirencester Royal Agriculture College on “Plastics in Organic Horticulture – is it sustainable?” Don’t think many delegates took much, if any, notice of my concerns. It takes a world famous name and a natural history programme on BBC to make us all sit up and get worried. Good on Attenborough! He has really stirred the subject up and got some serious reaction.
We gave up plastic carrier bags for our box scheme deliveries even before 2008, the conversion to paper carrier bags was easy enough despite the extra costs (more than 3 times!) involved. We discovered that far more of our customers were willing to return paper carriers than plastic ones presumably they had more respect for them. So, the paper bags got to be used for more trips than the plastic ones and the additional costs became less of an issue. During the winter with wet produce the return rate drops, but even then it still looks like a more sustainable solution. The “Eat Organic” carriers are made from plant starch and offer, we thought, a more sustainable alternative, they are the most expensive of all.
The question is: how is it that paper bags cost so much more than plastic? It’s all down to the cost or energy and how much gets used for production. Plastic bags are cheap as they don’t take up much space and are light, paper bags occupy more than 4 times the volume and weight and are therefore more expensive to transport and distribute. This rule also applies to their ultimate disposal. Not a problem if you have a decent compost heap as they will rot down nicely, but for most people they will be putting them into recycle streams, and it costs more to transport and process them due to the energy involved.
So, from the energy viewpoint plastic looks a whole lot better than paper, not that this fact makes me want to fall in love with plastic. I personally have never liked it. Potentially plastic can be recycled many times and actually has a lower footprint than paper, the big problem is of course litter and its inability to break down and what it leaves behind when it eventually does.
What about plant starch materials like our “Eat Organic” carrier bags? No disposal problems as they break down into organic components. The technology for producing the material is still relatively new and plant starch consumes vast amounts of energy in its production, hence its high price. And there is another problem – GMOs. Plant starch is mostly based on corn starch which cannot be grown in our climate. Americas are the main producers and its getting increasingly difficult to source GMO-free maize, as the GMO-free crops are often deliberately or accidentally mixed up and become contaminated. Even organic crops are now allowed a small percentage of contamination due to the difficulty of separation.
If we use any plant-starch materials, we need to get a written declaration from the supplier to guarantee freedom from GMOs. This is getting increasingly difficult to obtain. And there is yet another contamination concern and that is with glyphosphate. This nasty carcinogenic herbicide is finding its way into many agricultural products, especially maize. The only guaranteed free-from crops are those grown organically and they are in short supply as the livestock producers have an insatiable appetite for this protein crop.
There are plenty of other crops that could be used for paper/plastic alternatives, hemp being a possible alternative. It grows well in our climate and fits well with arable farm rotations. Presently the infrastructure does not exist to produce packaging materials; but I am sure that this is being worked on. However, we will need to accept that even this will demand energy inputs for production and distribution/disposal.
So, what is the answer? Well, the obvious solution is to stop using all or most packaging materials. We have been working on this for several decades now, but still have some way to go in reduction. The way we pack and distribute our produce has meant that compared with going to a supermarket you will receive around 70% less packaging materials, if you visit one of our market stalls or our VegShed. It will be even less than that, providing you bring your own bags.
But there are still some areas that we need to work on. Certain vegetables, notably leafy greens, are unsaleable within a few hours of harvest, if unpacked in a waterproof material, they wilt and go off very quickly. This was never a problem in my parents’ generation as these products did not exist.
We have come to expect a wider range of produce than previous consumers, who felt lucky if they could have a cabbage and a few carrots for dinner. Short supply chains help, and ours is about as short as you will find anywhere, and participation from customers by washing, drying and returning their plastics to us for reuse, would certainly help, provided the healthy and safety regs allow us to reuse them, but would they really want to do this? It would be a real test of their green credentials.

So ultimately the solution lies with the end-user, with each and everyone of us, to make the choices for what we feel most comfortable with.
PS. All our salad and leafy veg bags are made from recycled plastic and are fully recyclable.
PPS. You may wonder what about the plastic tunnels to grow your favourite crops, like salads, tomatoes, strawberries, peppers and cucumbers? Well, another ramble on this to come.

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