Tim suggests some ways smallholders can help reduce plastic waste
When I was a child or thereabouts, everyone was being urged to stop using paper bags, in order to save our dwindling rainforests. Plastic was the thing, we were told. Now this policy has come back to bite us on the bum, in the shape of tonnes of non-biodegradable plastic bags and packaging (not to mention other plastic items) that are filling up landfill sites and, worst of all, slowly but surely choking our oceans to death. We need to tackle this problem, but is a plasticfree world a realistic proposition?
In some ways, I liken this to the situation we find ourselves in with veterinary and medicinal products. Sheep keepers in particular will be familiar with the term ‘anthelmintic resistance’, the situation which occurs when internal parasites, through repeated exposure to the drugs used to tackle them, become resistant to their effect and the animal you’re trying to treat will continue to suffer and die. Therefore, in order to prolong the useful life of a particular active ingredient we need to cut down on unnecessary usage.
So, what’s the analogy with plastics? Well, plastic is pretty good stuff for some things, but in order to be able to continue to use plastics for essential purposes it’s clear that we need to cut out unnecessary use, otherwise our oceans are going to continue to suffer. And if the oceans are suffering then we and everything else on earth are suffering too.
So, what are we going to do about it? Doorstep recycling boxes are now commonplace, which means that the current generation is at least growing up with the concept that we can’t just go on throwing stuff away, but whereas paper, tins and glass are fairly easy to segregate, plastics have a habit of slipping through the net. And some plastics aren’t recyclable.
Bio-degradable plastics are used in some applications, but I don’t think that provides a sustainable answer as it may take years for them to break down, by which time any number of seabirds may have choked to death. And it’s not just large (visible) pieces of plastic that are causing problems; tiny microfibres are affecting the very heart of the global food web, which I think is the most worrying aspect of all.
So, although it’s not my habit to bang the eco-drum, I’ve come up with three things that I think smallholders could be doing to help win the war against plastic. The three ‘effs’ – farming, food and fashion.
The agricultural industry (which includes smallholders) produces quite a lot of waste plastic. There’s silage wrap (and net),
Tiny microfibres are affecting the very heart of the global food web, which I think is the most worrying aspect of all.
polypropylene baler twine, animal feed sacks, lick buckets, veterinary medicine packs and so on. Farmers are no longer permitted to burn or bury this waste on farm, so it’s taken away for recycling, which is good. However, we have to pay for this service on a per tonne basis, and there’s usually a minimum charge (equating to one tonne). Therefore the smallholder, who generates only a limited quantity of agricultural waste plastic each year, is tempted to simply chuck it in the domestic dustbin or on the bonfire (both of which are illegal) rather than pay up. It seems harmless enough, until you multiply it by the number of smallholders that are doing it! My suggestion is that groups of smallholders work collectively to submit all of their waste plastic for recycling, making the whole process more cost effective.
Or rather, food packaging. The more food you produce for yourself the less packaging will be required, so that’s a good start. However, when you do buy food items from a supermarket there’s often unnecessary plastic wrapping or polystyrene trays to dispose of, over and above the simple packet that was required to keep the item clean and fresh. I suggest that unnecessary packaging should be bundled up and returned to the supermarket using their freepost address, together with a polite note suggesting that they try to reduce their dependence on plastic. If enough people were to do this then the message might begin to sink in.
Remember those microfibres I mentioned earlier? They come from the synthetic clothes you wear. Every time you wash a fleece jumper another crop of tiny fibres goes swimming away down your drain and eventually they find their way into the sea. It’s like some kind of horrible migration. I accept that when working outdoors we need a plastic outer layer in order to stay reasonably dry, but for the rest of our clothing we should prioritise wool, cotton, linen and leather. Given that many smallholders are also producers of some of these raw materials it’s got to be a win-win situation.
Agricultural waste plastic presents disposal problems for smallholders INSET: Plastic is ubiquitous in our lives... even on a smallholding
TIM’S TIPS Career smallholder Tim Tyne offers more advice on a range of topics
Plastic waste is choking our oceans