The mass production of plastic in the 1930s has forever changed the world. The material was so convenient for businesses and consumers that it took generations before they realized its downside.
But despite the global condemnation of plastic at present, it remains a vital material for humanity’s food systems. Plastic has many uses in agriculture, particularly in the construction of greenhouses and hoop houses. The former are often made from polycarbonate sheets while the latter are made from ethylene-vinyl acetate copolymer. Plastic is also used to assemble irrigation pipes with polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene as the common materials for this job.
Outside construction, plastic is used in manufacturing pots, as well as in mulching, storing, and packaging.
Plastic may improve farm efficiency and productivity, but there are obvious downsides to address.
The very creation of plastic itself is problematic because most plastics are manufactured using fossil fuels.
After plastic deteriorates and is no longer fit for use, it is rarely recycled because it gets contaminated with pesticides, fertilizer, and dirt. This means that a large amount of plastic goes to landfills each year.
Plastic also breaks down into microscopic pieces that can alter the soil quality and impact the microbes that thrive in soil. Microplastic may also be absorbed by plants or can be washed away by water into rivers or lakes.
As an alternative, researchers are developing biodegradable plastic, though regulations must be put in place to ensure that biodegradable plastic does not contain damaging additives. Creating biodegradable pots is also an avenue to reduce plastic use in agriculture.
Though plastic was invented to solve certain problems, the current generation now has to come up with innovations to reverse the unintended consequence of this material. Such innovations will not only reduce the environmental cost but also allow farmers to maintain or improve their productivity without foregoing their long-standing practices.