PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA
Local farmers have a complicated relationship with plastic, but are finding new ways to use less
Do you remember the first time you took a reusable bag to the farmers’ market? Did you feel pride in saying no to a single-use plastic bag that might have ended up floating in a vast ocean garbage patch or blowing into the high branches of a tree? Or maybe you bought fresh strawberries packaged in a little green plastic mesh basket, which you later disposed of in your recycling bin. You probably figured these actions had prevented the ill effects of plastic pollution. Guilt averted, no need to give it another thought.
But the relationship between food, plastic and the environment is a complicated one. Recycling is in crisis, plastic pervades food production and the extent of the harm it causes is still being measured.
The situation is especially challenging for farmers, who have come to rely on huge quantities of plastic to help them balance being stewards of the land and water, while making a living growing affordable, high-quality food.
The good news is that thanks to the efforts of local eco-minded entrepreneurs, researchers, consumers and the farmers themselves, our region is generating promising solutions to the plastic problem. “If we all do a little bit at a time, we can make a change,” says Javier Zamora, owner of Royal Oaks-based JSM Organics and a devoted farmer-environmentalist who was one of several speakers who participated in a virtual forum on agricultural plastics that Open Farm Tours held in October. “It all comes back to sharing information, educating yourself and just trying it.”
THE TRUTH ABOUT RECYCLING
Since China implemented its National Sword policy in early 2018, slashing the recyclables and waste it accepts, the amount of plastic that is recycled around the world has dropped to a mere 9%, affecting commercial recyclers such as farms, as well as consumers. Already, it is estimated that some 80% of all plastic ever made is sitting in landfills or littering the planet. And given the petrochemical industry’s aim to boost plastic production and other factors, plastic trash winding up in global watersheds could grow to 50 million tons a year by 2030, according to research published by an international group of scientists in the journal Science in September.
“I’m here to tell you we simply can’t recycle our way out of the plastic crisis,” says Mary Scheller, a master recycler for the City of Santa Cruz.
Getting back to your strawberries, those plastic mesh baskets are not recyclable in Monterey County nor in the City of Santa Cruz, although they are accepted by Santa Cruz County. What’s more, plastic clamshells pose challenges to recyclers, and as a result, may either not be accepted for recycling, or may be accepted but later disposed of in landfills. Monterey County recycles #1 and #5 clamshells, which are commonly used for produce and to-go items, but the City of Santa Cruz does not accept them. The County of Santa Cruz accepts them, but only recycles them when a market exists.
But packaging is just one of the ways plastics are used to bring you fresh, whole foods like your berries.
PLASTICS ARE FOREVER
You’ve no doubt noticed the tell-tale ribbons of plastic that sheath farmers’ fields all around the Monterey Bay area. That is single-use plastic fumigation tarp or single-use plastic mulch—the tarp holds in insecticides and antimicrobials while the mulch prevents weed growth, warms the soil, conserves water and boosts crop growth. And while you can’t see it, buried below the mulch are miles of plastic drip tape, the standard for water-wise irrigation.
Plastic is also used to make fertilizer bags, the coating of timed-release fertilizer pellets, nursery pots and flats, gloves, hairnets, strapping tape, twine and personal protection equipment.
Pipes that connect fresh water to the drip tape are made of plastic, as are the pipes and ditch liners that drain the fields. Plastic sheeting covers hoop houses, guarding the crops inside against low temperatures and hot sun. Netting, fencing and wind breaks that protect crops from birds, animals and the elements all are created from plastic.
“Really, it’s hard to imagine how we would grow crops without plastic because of its many benefits,” says Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary water quality coordinator Pam Krone, who recently led a three-year study of agricultural plastic, the pollution it causes and ways to mitigate it in Monterey County.
Worldwide, just 2–5% of the plastics produced every year go into agriculture, but that figure totaled 12.3 billion pounds in 2017, Krone notes. Ag plastics are particularly troublesome because, being exposed to the air, wind and sun, they are susceptible to breaking down and getting carried out to sea.
In the oceans, plastic not only creates those floating garbage gyres, but more insidiously, both binds with and releases chemical toxins and breaks down into tiny microplastics, contaminating the water, sea life and eventually, humans.
On land, it also leaches chemicals and breaks into microplastics. And at each stage of its life cycle, plastic contributes to climatewarming greenhouse gas emissions.
The study led by Krone found 20.7 million pounds of plastics were used in farmers’ fields in Monterey County in 2018 alone. Strawberry crops, at 845 pounds of plastic per acre, required the most. And drip tape, at 12.2 million pounds, was the plastic used most by farmers overall.
Additionally, the study showed that agricultural plastic debris had made its way from the fields into local streams, occurring in similar concentrations to plastics in the nearby Monterey Bay.
Krone’s findings are sobering. But taking into account the sheer impossibility of eliminating agricultural plastics completely as well as counterbalancing environmental benefits, such as water savings through the use of drip tape and plastic mulch, her call to action for growers emphasizes not just replacing plastic when possible, but also using and disposing of it responsibly, and when possible, buying plastics that contain recycled content.
UNWRAPPING THE FUTURE
One item on Krone’s own call to action list that she is particularly excited about is a trial of biodegradable plastic mulches she is conducting with a group of local strawberry farmers. Conventional polyethylene plastic mulch is one of the plastics that local farmers use most and there is currently no recycling market for it. A farmer’s only option for getting rid of it is to take it to the dump, which is a laborious process and still leaves behind plastic fragments, which can build up in the soil and eventually interfere with microbial life and plant growth.
As of press time, preliminary reports from the trial were positive. Two farmers had applied it to their fields, finding they could use the same equipment that they do with traditional plastic mulch, and the installation caused no ripping or loss of speed in application. Over the course of the season, the project will track how well the mulch performs and then breaks down, determining how well it’s suited for our area’s particular soils, crops and climate.
The biodegradable plastic mulch, made by BASF and Novamont, is not yet approved for use with organic crops and it costs two to three times as much as conventional plastic mulch, depending on its thickness. But according to research by Washington State University, which is assisting with the trial, the savings on labor and disposal fees required to remove conventional mulch could equal or more than offset the price difference.
Meanwhile, Revolution, an Arkansas company with a recycling and manufacturing plant in Salinas, helps local farmers reduce their plastic footprint by recycling used drip tape, hoop house film and some plastic mulch—and offering them new plastic mulch and hoop house covering made with 25% recycled materials.
Subject to certain restrictions and fees, Revolution picks up the old plastic directly from local farms and then, in something of a closedloop system, uses the materials it collects to make the new products.
“The critical part is making sure there is an end market for it,” says Cherish Miller, Revolution’s vice president of sustainability and public affairs. And although it is located in Fresno, drip tape manufacturer Netafilm will pick up and recycle used drip tape from Monterey Bay farmers, and offers new drip tape made with recycled content. The minimum pickup amount is 20,000 pounds of tightly wrapped tape.
Watsonville-based Sambrailo Packaging is helping local farmers replace the plastic in their packaging entirely.
Thirty years after it introduced the first plastic clamshells for fresh berries, Sambrailo in 2017 launched ReadyCycle, a line of compostable baskets, trays and clamshells. Constructed with biodegradable cardboard and food-grade adhesives, labeled with vegetable inks and sealed with water-based coatings, the packaging can be composted right in consumer’ backyards.
“We really wanted it to be truly the next evolution of packaging,” says Sambrailo marketing director Sara Lozano, adding that it took 20 years for plastic to become the norm, and she expects full acceptance of compostable packaging to take time also. But thus far, the response to ReadyCycle has been “positively overwhelming,” she says, and sales are growing by 20% annually.
ReadyCycle costs growers about four to five times more than plastic packaging—those little plastic mesh strawberry baskets cost 3.5 cents each, for example, whereas ReadyCycle compostable baskets cost 14 cents, adding about a dime to the cost, and 1 pound ReadyCycle compostable clamshells cost about 25 cents more than plastic.
But Sambrailo and the growers are tapping into an eagerness on the part of consumers to reduce their impact on the environment—and their willingness to pay more to do so.
“This is a beautiful clamshell and so much better for the environment,” says JSM Organics’ Zamora, referring to ReadyCycle, which 80% of his customers are now choosing instead of plastic, despite the extra cost. “People are really appreciative of what we are doing.”
It’s unrealistic to expect farmers to completely eliminate plastic from their operations anytime soon—if ever.
But forward-thinking farmers and their partners will undoubtedly keep innovating new ways to reduce agriculture’s dependence on plastic. And as more growers become aware of plastic’s contamination of the land, water and air on which they rely—not to mention themselves and their customers—they will surely become increasingly focused on the problem.
Consumers also have an important role to play in nudging this along by consciously seeking out and supporting growers who strive to minimize their plastic consumption.
“The right thing is always changing—it’s just coming to light that plastics are a big problem in the ocean,” says Krone. “We’d like consumers to purchase food that is grown, shipped and packaged with less plastic.”