There’s no avoiding it: We use a lot of plastic.
Plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade, and most of it does not even make it to the recycling bin. A 2017 study showed that of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever created, only 9 percent has even been recycled. The majority — about 5 billion metric tons — is languishes in landfills or litters the natural environment. The same study predicts that by 2050, 12 billion metric tons of plastic will be in the world’s landfills.
Paradoxically, gardening can be a huge culprit for plastic, even though most people get into gardening to get back in touch with the natural world. Plastic is found in many things in every aspect of gardening, from hoses and bedding to pots and compost bags.
“It’s everywhere in the garden,” Sally Nex, garden writer and blogger at Gardening without Plastic, said. “I can’t escape the stuff.”
Part of why plastic is so ubiquitous in the garden, according to Nex, is because it is so useful. Plastic is light, flexible and durable against the elements. But besides the impact of plastic waste generated by amateur and master gardeners alike, using plastic in gardening can allow toxic materials to leach into the natural environment.
“When you use plastic in the garden, bits of it crack and fall off into the ground, and then they run off and end up in the water table,” Nex said. “If you don’t think you are contributing, I think you are indirectly, just by using plastic day to day, particularly in a disposable way.”
There are several kinds of plastics used in gardening. If you are looking to reduce plastic use in your garden, there are a few simple ways you can do so.
Replace your plastic pots
Plastic pots are pervasive in the gardening world, but with a little careful planning, you can go completely plastic-free in this area.
“Plastic pots is the most visible item for plastic use in the garden,” Nex said. “We all accumulate them when you buy a new plant. It is really quite difficult when horticultural industry supplies in plastic pots.”
Nex recommended raising bedding plants from seed, and consider biodegradable pots and wooden seed trays, which are a useful plastic-free alternative.
“That’s the area where I have gotten rid of plastic completely,” Nex said. “My seeds do better without plastic.”
Besides old-fashioned terra cotta pots and the hanging baskets made from burlap and stagnant moss, a number of different biodegradable pots are on the market.
“There’s a lot of great non-plastic containers out there,” Kate Garland, horticultural professional at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said. Among them is CowPots, made from cow manure crafted into a paper-like substance, as well as others made from wood fiber and new biodegradable pots being developed from poultry feathers, Garland said.
“When you go to plant the seedlings in those pots, it’s best if you can peel the pot away from the seedlings,” Garland said. “It could impede root growth.”
You can also make your own biodegradable pots from materials you find around your house, such as newspapers.
“I’ve actually become really crafty through all of this business of reducing plastic,” Nex said. She makes her own DIY paper pots from old newspaper, which she said hold the roots together while they grow and disintegrate fully when planted directly into the ground without disturbing the roots.
Nex also starts her seeds in a wooden tray. “My seedlings are so much happier,” she said. “They have this kind of transfer of air and water. In plastic, it’s a more static environment.”
Switch your hose for a watering can
You may be accustomed to watering your plants quickly with a handy garden hose, but perhaps it is time to rethink your method.
Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC, is the durable, flexible plastic used to make water hoses. Phthalates are added to some PVC to make the material more flexible, but phthalates contain a chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA, that has been shown to disrupt regular hormone patterns in humans.
“Hoses are very problematic,” Nex said. “There are good reasons for not using a hose”
While there are phthalate-free hoses, Nex suggested opting for a metal watering can instead. Though it is less efficient, watering with a metal watering can allows for more control over the amount of water you use on your plants and the force with which it hits their sometimes fragile stems and leaves.
Buy compost in bulk (or make your own)
Polypropylene is a plastic commonly used for compost sacks, but compost can be bought in bulk to reduce the use of plastic bags. But why buy when it’s so easy (and more sustainable) to make your own compost?
“It’s really fun,” Nex said. “It’s like making cakes or something.”
Nex recognizes, though, that not everyone has the ability to make enough compost to feed their entire garden.
“If you’re gardening in an [apartment], it’s quite unlikely that you’re going to have facility to do that,” Nex said. “You don’t need a massive amount of space, but what do you do need is quite a lot of organic material.”
If you do have to buy soil amendments though, look for more earth-friendly options.
“A lot of our soil amendments like compost and fertilizer come in plastic,” Garland said. “Consider purchasing soil amendments in bulk.”
Nex, who is based in the United Kingdom, only knows of one nursery experimenting with reusable compost bags, but she hopes to see more. “That’s got to be the future,” she said.
Consider cardboard weed suppressants
Suppressing weeds is essential to any successful garden. Though plastic weed suppressants pervade the market, you can make your own from materials you find around your house.
“A lot of times gardeners use big rolls of black plastic to warm the soil and for weed suppression,” Garland said.
These rolls of plastic have a cheap replacement, though: cardboard.
“Cardboard always works well for suppressing weeds in the garden,” Nex said.
At the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s demonstration farm, Garland said that the plastic protectors are being replaced by materials such as a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard weighed down by mulch.
“That’s been a nice shift, with the newspaper and cardboard,” she said.
Make your own labels
It may seem small, but the plastic labels used to help you keep track of your plants before they bloom are also contributing to the waste stream. Ditch your plastic labels, ties and clips in favor of homemade wooden ones.
“Wooden stakes and plant markers are another thing to think about,” Garland said. “There are a lot of plastic markers out there, but wood is absolutely fine.”
Garland suggested buying a big pack of wooden skewers, clipping clothespins on the end of the individuals sticks and writing the names of your plants on the clothespins. She also suggested using old wooden spoons, which can often be found at your local thrift store, to label your plants.
“There are lots of creative options,” she said. Popsicle sticks can also be used to make labels, and wooden markers with pointed ends are available at many garden supply stores.
Buy metal or wooden tools
Next time you purchase tools, consider buying ones made out of metal or wood instead of plastic.
“It seems a bit perverse to throw away plastic tools if you’re using them at the moment,” Nex said. But nothing lasts forever. When your plastic tools wear down, or if you are shopping for your first set of gardening tools, consider purchasing wood or metal instead of plastic.
“They’re much nicer to use anyway,” Nex said. “They’re much better in the soil. Metal stays much more rigid than plastic. They look so much nicer as well.”
Changing individual gardening practices is only a small drop in the sea of change when it comes to plastic use, Nex said, but if many gardeners change their habits, the tides could turn.
“It’s going to take a very long time,” Nex said. “It was a billion individuals’ tiny acts that got us into this, and it’s going to be a billion little tiny acts that is going to get us out of it as well.”