There you are, faced with the mother of all plastic mountains just inside your garden gate. You have gardened with plastic so long you have no idea how to live without it.
Yet you’ve watched the albatrosses choking and the poisoned whale calves on Blue Planet II; you know plastic is cluttering our seas and turning our beaches into rubbish tips. Besides, it’s kind of ugly. So you want to wean yourself off the stuff and find some prettier, more planet-friendly way to be.
But where on earth to start?
1: Stop buying new plastic
Take a pledge, like I did at the start of 2017, never to buy new plastic for the garden where there is an alternative.
2: Use up all the plastic you’ve already got
You’ll notice I’m not saying “stop using plastic”. Just stop using new plastic. Reusing the plastic you already have until it gives up from sheer exhaustion means you are maximising the amount of time it stays out of the wider environment. I have plastic pots in my garden which I brought with me when I moved to Somerset over 7 years ago and they’re still going strong (if slightly battered, these days).
3: Recycle your spent plastic… and don’t replace it with new
When plastic items (inevitably) crack or degrade to the point where you can’t use them any more they should go for recycling and be replaced with an alternative that is not plastic based if possible, or with recycled plastic where necessary.
4: Find non-plastic alternatives
This is not as easy as it sounds. There are alternatives: lots of them, from biodegradable plastic to bamboo, wood, clay, glass, metal… Not all are equally desirable from an environmental point of view, and some perform better in the garden (often better than plastic) while others perform worse. Mostly, I’ve not been looking for improvements: just non-plastic equivalents. I’ll be weighing them up one by one on this very blog.
5: If there’s no non-plastic alternative, find a getaround
There are some gardening tools and equipment for which I haven’t – yet – found an alternative that isn’t made from virgin plastic. On the list: Compost bags, fruit netting, insect-proof mesh, bubble wrap greenhouse insulation, build-a-balls and other support connectors. For at least some of these, you can get around the issue by simply finding a way of gardening that doesn’t use that product. I’ve stopped using bubblewrap insulation, for example, simply by not heating my greenhouse any more.
6: In extremis, use recycled plastic
I have much to say about recycled plastic, of which more later. It is not the panacea it is sometimes made out to be, and I would argue it is the bottom-most rung on the ladder to plastic-free nirvana, the absolute minimum you can do to reduce the amount of new plastic in your garden. But at least it’s something, and better than buying in new plastic all the time.
7: And watch out for uninvited plastic
By this I mean all the plastic which arrives in the garden by accident, as it were, without you inviting it in. Every time I do a planting job for a client I am lumbered with sometimes hundreds of 2 and 3 litre pots: new plastic I haven’t directly “bought” but which nonetheless are now adding to my garden’s plastic footprint. I will never use these pots: there are simply too many of them. It makes them effectively single use plastics – a real waste of the resources required to produce them.
And every time I mail order in plants, tools or just about anything for the garden they will be wrapped in single-use plastic film. I even ended up with a pack of biodegradable coir pots once which arrived beautifully shrink-wrapped in plastic, rather cancelling out the reason I’d bought them in the first place.
Plug plants are particularly bad, held in big PET2 rigid blister packs which cannot be recycled kerbside or even at my local tip (there will be more about the thorny issue of recycling garden plastic shortly, too).
So to tackle this tide of uninvited plastic, the only place to go is the supplier. I am actively seeking out wholesale nurseries who use only recycled pots (or better – but vanishingly rare – no pots at all). Garden centres are another behemoth to tackle: I have never even heard of one with a no-plastic or even recycled-plastic policy. If you know better, do tell!
And I will be finding mail order suppliers who use corn starch and cardboard for packing or who use plastic alternatives where necessary. This is quite likely to be difficult, if not impossible in todays world; so if you know of any specialist plant nurseries or mail order companies with a no-plastic mail order policy, please let me know in the comments below…