EIP-AGRI Focus Group Plastic footprint: Final report
This report presents the findings of the EIP-AGRI Focus Group 'Reducing the plastic footprint of agriculture'. Plastics can be found in each step of crop production, from containers to fertilisers to mulch covering the soil, the pipes irrigating the fields, and the packaging around the final products. The Focus Group experts discussed how the plastic footprint in agriculture could be reduced. They discussed existing solutions to reduce the use of plastic, avoid debris with biodegradable plastics, limit contamination from microplastics, collect waste in an efficient way, and recycle the plastics.
EIP-Agri Focus Group
Plastic finds use in many services in modern agriculture, such as in the form of film (plastic mulch, greenhouse cove, low tunnels and bale wrapping for silage preparation), crop protective nets, irrigation pipes/tapes, ropes and twines, crates and containers for farming. Considering that the plastic used for this services have a short term of use, a high amount of generated agricultural plastic waste has to be collected and processed annually. Else, it pollutes and causes damage into the environment.
The use of renewable resources and the contamination of the environment with plastic debris are two aspects which can help defining the plastic footprint on agriculture.
While plastic production relies on petrochemicals from non-sustainable resources (petroleum and natural gas) leads to resource management issues. A big challenge of recycling agriplastics raises due to contact with soil, moisture, plant debris and other materials leave residues. Therefore, the collaboration of all stakeholders is needed for organizing the collection of plastic waste in farms. Weathering and mechanical constraints are likely to cause plastic debris, which can enter the environment due to proper collection system. Considering the high amounts of plastic content in many fields, the long term-effects of its contamination in the environment is still uncertain. Especially, the microplastics (particles smaller than 5mm), an important source of plastic contamination, that can easily be transported by the wind and by run-off water, and be ingested by organisms. All this raises issues for soil health.
Considering all these issues, the Focus Group presents the report on how to reduce the plastic footprint in agriculture by addressing the following specific tasks:
- Identification of the main use and properties of plastics in farming activities, and their advantages or threats for the sustainability of agricultural production
- Identification of the indirect sources of plastic contamination such as the use of contaminated biofertilisers or waste water
- Review of existing knowledge about the impact of plastic on the agricultural environment
- Discussion of the existing practices as well as limitations for the reduction of plastic use, its recycling and its degradability in the environment
- Exploration of opportunities and needs for innovations to reduce/replace the use of plastics while maintaining the economic and environmental performance of the farm
- Presentation of the existing monitoring methods and suggestion for ideas for improvement in this area
Reducing the plastic footprint of agriculture: existing solutions and innovations needed
The existing solutions and innovations presented on this report include the following:
1. Reducing the plastic footprint of agriculture:
· Crop residues for mulching
Plant residues (straw, bark or ramial chipped wood) can be used to cover the soil and reduce water evaporation and weed growth. Even if the effects are often less strong than with plastic mulch, crop residues may be a recommendable alternative when they are abundantly and locally available.
· Using cover crops to replace mulching
Growing cover crops can provide a solution to control weed growth and conserve soil moisture. Farmers need to choose the type of cover crop carefully, as shallow-rooted crops may decrease soil moisture in the topsoil.
· Shifting from silage to hay for livestock feed
Livestock can be fed with hay instead of silage to avoid the use of plastic for bale wrapping and the need for managing plastic waste.
2. Reducing plastic:
· By keeping the current used plastic on the loop (extending the duration of the current plastic) so that the amount of plastic is reduced as in stronger plastic. Example to this is Portugal, where farmers use a strong plastic for log time (8 years), with a double-tomato crop production per year.
3. Plastic removal methods and on-farm cleaning instructions for cleaning agricultural plastic done by experts are:
· Sort the plastic; agricultural plastic comes in different forms and each type must be sorted individually for it to be recycled.
· Handle and store the plastic so that it stays as dry and clean as possible
· Clean the plastic with water; a rotating tank can be used.
· Hand in plastic for recycling at a collection point; plastic can be packed with a hydraulic press at the farm to make transportation easier.
4. Designing plastics for their after-life:
· Plastic intended to be left in the soil after use: biodegradable plastics
· Plastic that will be left in the soil should be biodegradable to avoid debris accumulation, extra plastic removal and cleaning steps (e.g. plastic mulch and, at a smaller scale, twines to tie vegetables).
· Plastic intended to be collected and recycled: strong and recycling-friendly plastics
· Plastic should be strong enough to be easily collected and cleaned without producing debris.
5. Existing plastic collection schemes:
· Collection schemes connect farmers with recycling facilities and organise the transport of the plastic waste, making it easier for farmers to deal with their plastic waste.
6. Ongoing research projects to deliver suitable solutions for farmers:
· Innovative Farmers
· LIFE BIOTHOP
Recommendations and the way forward into reducing the plastic footprint of agriculture are presented, where an increase of the awareness and a successful dissemination of good practices are to be one of the solutions. In conclusion, in the opinion of the FG, reducing the plastic footprint in agriculture requires the collaboration of farmers, plastic industries, researchers, and politicians to ensure the sustainable use of our resources and the protection of the environment.
Adapted from the report "EIP-AGRI Focus Group – Reducing the plastic footprint of agriculture”.
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EIP-AGRI Focus Group Plastic footprint: Final report