“Plasticulture”: Concerns about the environmental implications of agricultural plastics are in the international spotlight

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Written by Damian Benskin

Plastic is widely used in agriculture. Photo: Johan Neven / Flickr

Plastic products used throughout the agricultural industry provide many benefits, but their usage and disposal come with environmental trade-offs – including large amounts of waste and soil pollution.

Agricultural plastics are gaining prominence on international agendas as research on “plasticulture” – the use of plastic products in agricultural production – reveals their advantages and trade-offs. The large-scale impacts of agricultural plastics’ continuously increasing usage, both positive and negative, have drawn attention as plans to address plastic pollution are formulated around the world. Groundbreaking reports like those from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), along with guidance documents arising from high-level discussions such as the FAO Committee on Agriculture’s 28th Session, demonstrate agricultural plastics’ growing importance in global affairs. The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA)’s upcoming negotiation of a global legally binding agreement on plastic pollution, initiated by its March 2022 resolution, provides an opportunity to elevate them further.

Modern agriculture increasingly relies on plastic products – with mixed effects

Plastics are used abundantly throughout the agricultural value chain. According to FAO, global agricultural value chains in 2019 used nearly 50 million tons of plastic – 12.5 million in production activities, and 37.3 million in packaging – in addition to unknown quantities in distribution, storage, and processing. Production of crops and livestock used 10.2 million tons, while fisheries and aquaculture used 2.1 million. Common agricultural plastic products include films for greenhouses, soil mulching, and tunnels; drip irrigation systems; containers for crops, produce, and agrochemicals; and fishing nets and fishery equipment. Demand for agricultural films, which make up a significant percentage of production plastics, was projected to increase by over 50% by 2030. However, FAO states that data gaps likely make these figures an underestimation.

Plasticulture’s rapid expansion stems from several agricultural benefits. Plastics are generally cheaper and easier to obtain than sustainable alternative products. Various plastic products can potentially decrease food loss and waste, reduce the need for agrochemicals, extend the growing season, increase water use efficiency, and raise crop yields. This could improve food system resilience and promote food security in a world with water shortages, a growing population, and a changing climate.

Shortfalls in agricultural plastics’ usage and waste management result in pollution. Agricultural soils annually receive a quantity of microplastics that may equal or exceed the quantity on ocean surface waters. Early-stage research found evidence that microplastics and plastic residue accumulation can change soil structures and properties, concentrate pathogens and organic pollutants, negatively affect soil fertility, and decrease crop yields – which threatens food security in the long run. Mismanaged plastics can also travel to other ecosystems, harm animals, and enter food chains.

Knowledge and capacity gaps complicate attempts to balance costs and benefits

Further research is needed on agricultural plastics and their alternatives. This includes performing life-cycle assessments on plastic products and building inventories of their quantities, usage, and waste management. Microplastics’ pathways into the environment from conventional agricultural plastic degradation, their behavior in soil, and their impacts on environmental and human health have many unknowns. Biodegradable plastics’ degradation processes, and their overall sustainability, require more study. However, researchers face significant challenges. Some plastic material flow records exist, but crucial data are often unrecorded, unavailable, or impossible to verify. Seminal evidence of microplastics’ adverse impacts on soil ecosystems is available, but materials and approaches for testing and risk characterization are not yet consolidated.

Recycling system capacity improvements are necessary to sustainably manage agricultural plastics. Farmers’ and fishers’ limited capacity to manage plastic materials leads to dumping, burning, and abandonment of waste. Limits may be of a financial or economic nature, or due to lack of access to adequate disposal and recycling infrastructures. There is a deficit of recycling facilities, and only a fraction of agricultural plastics can be recycled through current technology and systems. Particularly challenging materials include multi-layer plastics and plastics heavily soiled with organic materials.

Policy and market-based solutions can reduce plasticulture’s environmental footprint

The forthcoming international plastic treaty could build frameworks for agricultural plastic management initiatives. National Action Plans within the global agreement would allow individual countries to address regional circumstances and needs. An international Voluntary Code of Conduct, recommended by the FAO Committee on Agriculture, could guide national plan development. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) suggests financial and capacity-building assistance for economically developing countries; standardized monitoring and reporting systems; and establishment of scientific bodies to conduct research and advise decision-makers.

Farmers’ plastic waste management capacity can be increased through public and private sector assistance. This includes programs that provide financial assistance; arrange plastic collection, transportation, and processing; and disseminate information on best practices and resources. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, in which producers and marketers share in the financial responsibility for recycling, are one option.

The linear plastics economy can shift towards a circular model with a life-cycle approach. FAO’s “6 Rs” model, an environmental friendliness hierarchy, proposes six ranked strategies to minimize waste generation: refuse, redesign, reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover. Recycling system redesigns and new schemes must be tailored and developed with local stakeholders – which presents the opportunity to work with the informal recycling sector, a crucial pillar of global waste management and circular economy. International agreements must be similarly inclusive to avoid perpetuating injustice against economically developing nations using agricultural plastics to adapt to climate change and resource shortages.

Agricultural plastics are being addressed at multiple levels

International initiatives on agricultural plastics are advancing. In addition to releasing guidance from the Committee on Agriculture’s 28th Session, FAO hosted a knowledge-sharing hybrid event on agricultural plastics and policy at the 2021-2022 Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. The European Commission recently financed PAPILLONS and MINAGRIS, two large-scale research projects on agricultural plastic management and pollution impacts.

National policies and schemes have been instituted. China has official agricultural film management measures. France’s national multi-stakeholder EPR scheme, A.D.I.VALOR, uses “eco-fees” paid by supply chain participants to fund collection and recycling for farmers. Numerous other countries have EPR schemes, along with some Canadian provinces that have schemes for products such as grain bags and bale twine. Brazil’s mandatory pesticide container take-back scheme through inPEV has a primary packaging collection rate around 94%.

In this crucial moment for “plasticulture”, science-informed policies and initiatives can help achieve the tricky balancing act between agricultural plastics’ benefits and trade-offs.