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Plastic pollution and agriculture

In the agriculture industry, plastic waste presents a serious and frequently overlooked challenge with far-reaching impacts on both food production and safety. In recent years, the issue of plastic waste has gained prominence due to its innate inability to biodegrade, resulting in widespread environmental problems.

The buildup of plastic waste in agricultural areas can have detrimental effects on biodiversity, soil health, and ecosystem function.

“More than 350 million metric tons of plastic trash are presently produced annually. Without changes to current policies, global plastic waste generation is projected to triple by 2060

Plastic waste can pollute the soil in agricultural areas, which will prevent plants from properly absorbing nutrients and thereby impede their growth. Also, the presence of plastic waste can obstruct irrigation systems, potentially causing crop losses and water stagnation. In addition, toxic substances that are released by plastics into the environment could threaten human health if they are taken up by plants and eventually make their way into the food chain.

Environmentalists and agricultural specialists have been advocating for the use of sustainable packaging options because they see the pressing need to address the issue of plastic waste. Sustainable packaging seeks to reduce an item’s negative environmental effects at every stage of its lifecycle, from manufacturing through disposal. Farmers and food producers can limit the quantity of plastic waste produced and the harmful effects it has on ecosystems by using biodegradable materials for packaging. Alternative approaches are also being investigated to reduce plastic waste in agriculture, in addition to sustainable packaging. The development of biodegradable mulch films using plant-based materials like starch or cellulose is one example of an innovative technique. These films can be used to cover the soil, preventing weed growth and retaining moisture while finally decomposing organically and leaving no toxic residues behind. Also, a culture of sustainability in the agriculture sector must be fostered, and this requires educating farmers, consumers, and policymakers about the significance of responsible plastic use and disposal.

How plastic waste interferes with food production and safety

“We are starting to understand that the build-up of plastic can have wide-ranging impacts on soil health, biodiversity and productivity, all of which are vital for food security,” says Professor Elaine Baker at UNEP’s Foresight Brief.

The improper disposal of plastic waste, such as bags, bottles, or packaging materials, has a number of detrimental effects on agriculture. It may result in soil pollution, which could have an impact on agricultural output. Plastics accumulate in the soil because they take a very long time to naturally breakdown. Plastic debris can impede plant growth and impair how well they absorb nutrients. Plastic waste frequently makes its way into water bodies, including rivers, lakes, and oceans. Water contamination can be caused by runoffs, which carry plastics such as mulch films. Aquatic life can be threatened, and the ecosystem can be disrupted by plastic waste in water bodies. Additionally, it may contaminate irrigation water, which could negatively affect crop growth and quality.

Plastics gradually break down into smaller particles known as microplastics. These minute particles have the ability to contaminate air, water, and even the soil. Microplastics can be absorbed by plants and build up in their tissues when they are present in the soil. This could result in the introduction of microplastics into the food chain, which would have an effect on both crop yield and food safety. Additionally, a buildup of plastic debris can prevent the soil from properly draining water, which can cause waterlogging and reduce the oxygen supply to plant roots. This may have a detrimental effect on the development of the crop’s roots and total farm output.

When left in agricultural fields, plastic waste can serve as a breeding ground for pests and diseases. Water that accumulates in used plastic bags or containers might attract insects, increasing the risk of vector-borne diseases. The presence of microorganisms that might infect plants in plastic waste can also contribute to crop diseases. Also, wildlife is endangered when the environment is polluted by plastic waste in agricultural regions. Animals may consume or become tangled in plastic materials, which could result in harm, choking, or even death. This disrupts the ecosystem’s natural balance and may have a negative impact on agricultural biodiversity.

Sustainable alternatives to curb plastic wastes

The negative effects of plastics on ecosystems, food, oceans, and human health have sparked a global effort to find innovative approaches to stop this widespread problem. Sustainable alternatives are gaining ground as possible substitutes for conventional plastics, from biodegradable materials to innovative recycling technologies.

One of the alternatives to conventional plastic use in agriculture is the use of biodegradable mulch films. Biodegradable mulch films are thin sheets made from biodegradable materials that are used to cover the soil in agricultural fields. They serve as substitutes for traditional plastic mulch sheets and are manufactured from substances like starch, cellulose, or polylactic acid (PLA). Over time, these films degrade naturally, requiring less removal and disposal. Mulch films provide many benefits, including improved crop growth, weed control, moisture conservation, and temperature management. The advantages of traditional plastic mulch films are the same as those of biodegradable mulch films, but with the added benefit of being more environmentally friendly.

Biodegradable mulch films © BASF France SAS

In addition, bio-based plastics come from sustainable sources like corn, sugarcane, or vegetable oils. These materials can be used in agriculture for a variety of purposes, such as packaging, plant pots, and trays. Plastics made from biomaterials have a smaller carbon footprint and may be recycled or composted. Other alternatives to plastic materials include natural fibers like hemp, jute, and coconut coir. These fibers can be used to make plant pots, blankets to prevent erosion, and packaging. They are environmentally friendly and biodegradable when compared to conventional plastics.

Adoption of sustainable farming methods such as regenerative agriculture, efficient waste management, and recycling programs are all necessary to address the problem of plastic waste in agriculture. The push for the use of compostable or biodegradable materials in place of conventional plastics can also aid in reducing the negative effects that plastic waste contributes to agriculture. By prioritizing the reduction of plastic waste and adopting sustainable practices, the agricultural sector can contribute to mitigating environmental degradation while ensuring the production of safe and healthy food. Finding novel solutions and putting them into practice are crucial for reducing the negative effects of plastic waste on the environment and fostering a more resilient and sustainable agricultural system. This requires cooperation between farmers, researchers, policymakers, and consumers. Also, recycling plastics allows for the creation of valuable agricultural items, including irrigation pipes, and greenhouse covers, which supports the circular economy principle.