Toward the Plastic-free Garden

Leaf recycling the natural way, an eternal cycle. © Beatriz Moisset

Plastics are a curse and a blessing. They are changing our world for better and for worse. That is why Susan Freinkel titled her book on this subject Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. I recommend her ForaTV lecture.

The most serious trouble with plastics is that they are not truly recyclable. It is true that we place them by the curbside and they are taken by trucks to recycling facilities. If all goes as it should, that plastic is turned into something else and given a new life. But that doesn’t complete the circle back to the original components. Perhaps it should be called something else, down-cycling, half-cycling?

Recycled or not, this is where plastics end up. © Kevin Krejci. Flickr

Nature is the supreme recycler. Let us see how it does it. A leaf takes minerals and water from the soil, and carbon dioxide from the air. Using energy from sunlight, it combines these raw materials into organic matter. In the fall, the leaf dies and falls to the ground. The recycling process gets under way. Insects chew it down, fungi and bacteria take over and continue breaking it down into simpler and simpler molecules. It may take months or years; the raw materials go back to their original state — minerals, water, and carbon dioxide to be used again. The process is a perfect circle.

Sometimes the full cycle requires more steps. A caterpillar eats the leaf. A songbird eats the caterpillar, and a hawk eats the songbird. When the bird of prey dies, it returns to the soil, completing the cycle. Or, the leaf sends the final product, the organic matter, down to the trunk of the tree where it becomes wood. It may take many years, even centuries, but in the end the wood returns to the soil, and the circle is completed.

This recycling has been going on from the beginning of life on the planet and will continue until the end. Without it there would be no life. Let us compare with the “recycling” performed by us, humans.

Aluminum is fully recyclable. It can be melted again and again indefinitely. Glass is almost as recyclable. Paper, like leaves, is made of organic matter. So, if processed properly, is also fully recyclable.

At least in theory, those major components of the waste stream can complete the entire cycle repeatedly. Plastic is another matter. Leaving aside the complexities of the variety of plastics, let us say that plastics are not recyclable. So far no true biodegradable plastics exists. So they are only converted to lower-grade plastics and used for some purposes. After that they reach the end of the line, never going full circle. Waste of some sort accumulates inexorably, and it is beginning to impact the environment in alarming ways.

So, what can we do in our gardens to prevent the accumulation of plastics? We know that the three R’s of environmental responsibility are in descending order of importance: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. With plastics we should change it to: Reduce, Reduce, and Reduce. Complete elimination may be impossible. But reduction should be a top priority. Let us make it our New Year’s Resolution.

Plastic mulch in the garden. © mmwm. Flickr

We have to educate ourselves on the ways to reduce plastics in the garden. An Internet search of the more professional websites was rather disappointing. For example, the Universities of North Carolina, Connecticut, and New Mexico discuss the advantages and disadvantages of plastic mulch. None of the websites mentions the most serious disadvantage, damage to the environment, and none has suggestions on how to replace it. Fortunately, other sites are rich on tips about how to create a plastic-free garden.

The Ecology Center, an organization devoted to goals of ecological sustainability, lists a number of misconceptions about the recycling of plastics, for instance the belief that curbside collection will reduce the amount of plastic landfilled. It doesn’t work this way if it encourages us to use more plastic. This site emphasizes the importance of “reduce” and “reuse” in its list of suggestions.

A good resource for gardeners interested in reducing plastics is the Rodale Institute. Their article “Keep Your Garden Plastic-Free with These Easy Swaps” has some excellent suggestions. Using organic instead of plastic mulches is so important that they expand the subject in “The Easiest Ways to Drought-Proof Your Garden“. They also discuss plastic-free living in the home as well as the garden in “Our 5 Favorite Lessons Learned from Plastic-Free Living“. They recommend choosing the right hose. Even small details can be helpful, like using popsicle sticks instead of plastic plant labels or daylily dying leaves as plant ties. The readers of these articles proposed other ideas, such as cutting strips of metal from soft drink cans to use as labels, and painting the names of plants on small rocks. Every bit helps. Every suggestion counts.

What can we do about the ubiquitous plastic plant pots? © Beatriz Moisset

Let us strive toward the plastic-free garden in 2013: Reduce, Reduce, and Reduce! Do you have your own favorite methods? I am sure the readers of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens have a lot to teach the rest of the world.

© 2012, Beatriz Moisset. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Great thoughts, Beatriz! I am striving to have a plastic-free garden. Basically the only plastics that come in are the pots that plants come in from the nursery. I stack them up and take them to my local nature center and they reuse them for their twice a year plant sales, saving them the money of purchasing new pots. They appreciate my “donation” and I don’t have to worry about trying to recycle them.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..The 5 Pillars of Ecosystem Gardening

  2. says

    Love hate relationship with this material. I like your conclusion, Beatriz, reduce, reduce and reduce. Maybe start by getting rid of plastic pots, trays & other nursery supplies? :) …. I have no answers, only questions….

  3. says

    Hi Beatriz. Great post. I stumbled across it through a Google alert I have set up for the words “plastic-free” because I write about plastic-free living, both on my blog and in my book, appropriately titled, “Plastic-Free.” I wanted to mention that I worked with Rodale on a plastic-free garden project back in 2011, and you might be interested to read some of the posts. I’m a novice gardener, so they were helping me figure out the gardening part, and I was trying to figure out the plastic-free part. I hope it’s okay to link to the posts in a comment here. I’ll try and see what happens:

    http://myplasticfreelife.com/2011/05/gardening-without-plastic-part-1/

    http://myplasticfreelife.com/2011/07/gardening-without-plastic-part-2-planting-and-replanting/

    http://myplasticfreelife.com/2011/07/gardening-without-plastic-part-3-mulching-and-watering/

    Thanks for your efforts in plastic reduction! I will share this post with my Facebook and Twitter followers.
    Beth Terry recently posted..Plastic-Free Holiday Gift Packs Have Arrived!

    • says

      Hello Beth: Thanks for the compliments and for the links. You make some priceless suggestions. It is nice to see that you have put those ideas into practice. Very helpful addition to this post. I hope that readers take advantage of your links. Thanks again.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Monarchs and their Enemies

      • says

        You’re welcome. Sadly, my garden did not survive another year because I got so busy with the book that I let it go. What grew instead were some beautiful “weeds” that were probably natives and some were edible, I’m pretty sure. But my landlord didn’t appreciate the wild beauty and chopped it all down. Ah well. Maybe I’ll try again in the Spring.
        Beth Terry recently posted..Plastic-Free Holiday Gift Packs Have Arrived!

  4. Judy Thurmond says

    Beatriz, kudos for this post. i found you via Beth Terry’s myplasticfreelife blog, my favorite place for plastic-free ideas. It’s great to see more people thinking about and working toward plastic-free gardening. Like you, I found some of the best info on Rodale’s site (when I wrote a short post on plastic-free gardening for the Park Slope Food Coop’s environmental blog, Ecokvetch). For my thoughts and a few other plastic-free gardening links:

    http://ecokvetch.blogspot.com/2012/06/plastic-and-people-plastic-free.html

    May there be much more sharing of plastic-free gardening info in the near future! It’s saddening, thinking that the formerly nurturing practice of gardening has become yet another way we harm our home planet. I know we can do better, and many gardeners want to.

  5. angela says

    Our household tries to go as plastic free as we can, but we can always do more. Last spring I started cracking my eggs at the top instead of the middle, rinsed out the shells, let them dry, then put them back into the cardboard egg carton. When it was time to start our seedlings, we filled the egg shells with our earth mix and planted the seeds in the shells. When it was time to transplant to outside, we cracked the bottom of the egg (so the roots could grow downward) and transplanted into our garden. We had ZERO leftovers. It was an accomplishment we were all proud of!

  6. says

    Beatriz, I also try to reduce the amount of plastics in my garden but I admit that years ago I definitely used my fair share of landscape fabric which I am slowly getting rid of. Like Carole, the largest amount of plastics in my garden come in through the plant containers. I like to keep some on hand for potting up transplants, etc. and for using for storage in the garage and garden shed. I have one for garden gloves, another for hand pruners and yet another for odds &ends. The rest get recycled at a local independent nursery that takes back the pots, even if you bought the plants elsewhere.
    Debbie recently posted..Wordless Wednesday ~ Berries for the Birds

  7. says

    Thank you for this information. I try to be careful of my use of plastic, and do recycle our plastic milk jugs and such. I didn’t realize that all plastic still ends up as waste at some point in its life. Oh, man! I buy a lot of bagged compost and manure. I guess I’ll need to step up my own compost production and try to get more from the city’s pile.

    I use cut up window blinds for markers. They are not the plastic ones.
    Corner Garden Sue recently posted..December in the West Front Yard

  8. Carole says

    Thought-provoking post, thank you. I wash my pots so I can reuse them and have been spotted pulling them from trash piles.
    I’ve read that the chemicals in plastics are being found in our bodies and most disturbing even the bodies of unborn children. Plastics that break down, like the newer grocery bags, find there way to our streams where they are consumed and become part of the life cycle.

  9. says

    Great article Beatriz! I like the term down-cycling, although half-cycling might make everyone realize that, like you explained, plastic never truly breaks down. Those terms makes so much sense when you think about it.

    Garden pots get reused for plant rescues but admit that I was less than stellar in my shopping choices, not bags and such since I do use cloth bags about half the time and even did it before it was fashionable, thanks to a great gift from my aunt one Christmas of 6 bags. The checkout people looked at me funny at that time (at least 15 years ago), where now they even grab them to fill em up.

    I am trying to get better about purchase of things that are plastic and your article will keep that thought upfront in my head. Great links btw
    Loret recently posted..Profile of Darkness

  10. says

    An important topic and good information, Beatriz. I especially appreciate the link to Susan Freinkel’s lecture and am glad to know about her book. I learned a lot and am stimulated to see what I can do to reduce my use of plastics – in the garden and elsewhere. Thank you.
    Betty Hall recently posted..Frost flowers on white crownbeard

  11. Ruth says

    LIKE, LIKE, LIKE IT! Comments and links are great too – lots of good ideas. I’m passing this along to others. Thanks.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] The most serious trouble with plastics is that they are not truly recyclable. It is true that we place them by the curbside and they are taken by trucks to recycling facilities. If all goes as it should, that plastic is turned into something else and given a new life. But that doesn’t complete the circle back to the original components. Perhaps it should be called something else, down-cycling, half-cycling?Nature is the supreme recycler. Let us see how it does it. A leaf takes minerals and water from the soil, and carbon dioxide from the air. Using energy from sunlight, it combines these raw materials into organic matter. In the fall, the leaf dies and falls to the ground. The recycling process gets under way. Insects chew it down, fungi and bacteria take over and continue breaking it down into simpler and simpler molecules. It may take months or years; the raw materials go back to their original state — minerals, water, and carbon dioxide to be used again. The process is a perfect circle.  [...]

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