Research

The plastics in your garden

There’s a huge range of plastics in common use in the garden. Here’s the breakdown:

PET1: Polyethylene Terephthalate: marked with a 1 on the triangle. Very commonly recycled, can break down when exposed for long periods of time to light or heat.

Used in: Practically nothing in the garden. It’s the stuff drinks bottles are made of and too unstable for most uses as it breaks down to easily to withstand sunshine and weather.

HDPE: High Density Polyethylene (Polythene): marked with a 2 on the triangle: doesn’t break down easily, resists UV rays and very heat tolerant, coping with -100 to 80C – one of the most common plastics used in the garden because of these properties.

Used in: most black, brown and green rigid plant pots; seed trays; the containers you buy pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser in; insect-proof mesh

How to avoid: Use biodegradable pots; use wooden seed trays; make your own pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser from the plants you grow; and I am still experimenting with alternatives to insect-proof mesh. Calico is looking expensive, but promising.

PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride: marked with a 3 on the triangle. Used in plastic pipes and irrigation. Most contain chemicals known as phthalates, helping the PVC to be more durable, flexible etc. But phthalates are very harmful to humans.)

Use in gardens: hosepipes

How to avoid: rubber hosepipe might seem a good alternative, but many are synthetic rubber which is basically plastic. Better just not to use a hose: use a metal watering can instead.

LDPE: Low Density Polyethylene (Polythene): marked with a 4 on the triangle. Single use plastics used in things like plastic produce bags and bin liners. It came along after HDPE and shares many of the same characteristics – so very safe in a wide range of températures and doesn’t Leach into the soil.

Use in gardens: Single-use packaging around mail-order items

How to avoid: Buy from nurseries and garden centres or find a supplier who doesn’t pack in plastic (easier said than done…)

PP: Polypropylene: marked with a 5 on the triangle. Used in products that require injection moulding like straws, bottle caps, food containers. Not as tolerant to heat as HDPE or LDPE, generally safe for use with food and the garden.

Use in gardens: Some more flimsy plant pots (eg seedling modules); Horticultural fleece is made from woven polypropylene.

How to avoid: Use newspaper pots instead of modules; wrap plants in hessian and straw instead; or just avoid growing particularly tender plants.

PS: Polystyrene: marked with a 6 on the triangle. One of the most widely used types of plastic, but one of the most harmful to the environment as it breaks down very quickly into very small particles, and tends not to last very long.

Use in gardens: Bedding plant trays and packaging for mail order plants

How to avoid: Raise your own bedding plants, or buy from a supplier who doesn’t use polystyrene trays. Buy from nurseries and garden centres or find a supplier who uses biodegradable cornstarch packing instead.

Polycarbonate: marked with a 7 on the triangle (this actually means any plastic other than those listed above – but usually polycarbonate or polylactide). Polycarbonate is the most harmful plastic we have ever created: proven repeatedly to leach BPA (Bisphenol A) – shown to cause reproductive problems in animals and linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes in humans.

Use in gardens: Plastic non-breakable greenhouses and cold frames.

How to avoid: Use glass instead.

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How I got here

This website has been a long time in the making.

I have been trying to eliminate plastic from my garden for about a year now, after one day last January when I walked through the gate into my veg garden and realised all I could see was plastic.

It isn’t a material I love at the best of times: it is blaring, ugly, and messy. It an unattractive habit of splitting and splintering at the slightest excuse.

But then I stumbled across a video of albatrosses on Midway Island, in the Pacific Ocean, choking on bits of plastic that had broken up and floated into the ocean looking for all the world like little fish. Except they were lethal.

I hated that I had any part in this. That day I resolved to reduce and if possible eliminate the amount of plastic I use; and first in line was the place I use most plastic of all, in the garden.

Plastic is undeniably useful in the garden: and I have really, really struggled to get my use of plastic under control. In trying, I have discovered several things.

Not using plastic involves a different way of gardening. I refer back to Victorian methods when in doubt: after all, they gardened rather well without using plastic (though they’d have loved it if they could have got their hands on it, I’m sure).

Plastic isn’t always the best material, despite what they’d have us believe.

Plastic substitutes are better for the environment than plastic; but not much.

There are some things you can’t substitute: I haven’t found a sensible alternative to fruit cage netting, for example.

And some things are only available if you have a lot of time and a lot of room: I am still struggling to generate enough compost to make my own potting mix and therefore eliminate all the plastic baggery that comes with bought-in compost.

But I’m getting there: and it is a subject I feel increasingly passionate about. So much so, in fact, that I’d like to try to change things more widely in the horticultural world, if I can. So I thought I’d put together this website, sharing the research I’ve done and the methods I’ve developed, as well as spreading the word about people I know of who do sterling work cutting back on plastic use and trying to garden more ethically.

In time, I hope it might expand into a kind of one-stop shop for non-plastic gardening stuff, so it makes it easier for anyone who wants to to garden without succumbing to the plastic pox that’s infecting our gardens. But that’s all in the future.

For now, I’m just going to bang on about it a bit, and hopefully convince everyone who gardens that they don’t, in fact, need plastic as much as they thought they did. Care to join me?

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The video that started it all

Need a good reason to ditch the plastic in your garden?

This is the video that made me decide I couldn’t justify it any more, on any grounds.

I came across it after listening to a speech in 2015 by the wonderful Emily Penn. This inspirational lady had been doing something about the terrible scourge of plastic in our oceans long before I had even heard about it, and even longer before David Attenborough drew a watching nation’s attention to the issue in the wonderful BBC1 series Blue Planet II. That seems to have done the trick, mind you, and finally, at last, everyone from government downwards is sitting up and take notice.

Anyway, I was trying to find out a bit more about what I’d heard about. I clicked on this video, and what I saw shocked me to the core and broke my heart. I have never forgotten these images.

I warn you: only start this video if you are feeling strong. It is, quite simply, terrible to watch.

MIDWAY a Message from the Gyre : a short film by Chris Jordan from Midway on Vimeo.