Monday the 5th of June 2023 is World Environment Day. This year, the UN’s theme for WED is Solutions to Plastic Pollution, bringing awareness to the harm caused to the environment by increasing rates of plastic contamination and restarting discourse on potential solutions. 

Since the 1950s, the widespread adoption of plastics has transformed the food value chain into what we know it to be today. Plastic is present in a variety of modern farming tools and technologies such as films, coatings, tubes, bags, sacks, bottles, containers, nets, ropes, lines, and more. Additionally, plastic storage and processing equipment as well as packaging has greatly contributed to a decrease in rates of food loss and an increase in food safety, thereby greatly increasing food security overall. However, the characteristics of plastics that make them so practical, such as their resistance to biological decomposition, also lead to problems at the end of their intended life cycles; upon entering the environment they can remain there for decades. 

According to the FAO, almost 80 percent of all plastics ever produced have ended up either in landfills or the natural environment. Half of plastics are only used once, and only 10 percent are recycled. Aside from improper disposal methods, plastic pollution also occurs when plastic products become damaged or degraded over time.

Plastic pollution has a negative impact on agricultural productivity both on land and water, causing physical, chemical, and biological effects on soil and aquatic ecosystems as well as plant and animal life. The threats posed to marine life by dangers such as entanglement and ingestion are well documented; every year 19-23 million tonnes of plastic end up in our lakes, rivers and seas. Comparatively, awareness on the comprehensive effects of plastic pollution in soils is less widespread. The risks posed by micro and nano plastics to animal, plant, and ecosystem health are still under investigation, but recent studies suggest they have the potential to harbor harmful organic pollutants and pathogens and to damage tissues. 

So where do we look to find plastic solutions? Where possible, plastic should be replaced with alternative materials, such as cardboard, bamboo, and plant-based twines and textiles. Adoption of sustainable agriculture practices can also remove the need for certain plastic products; for example, use of cover crops can replace row covers made from plastic. Where necessary, biodegradable and compostable plastics should be used instead of traditional polymers. Products such as fishing gear and agricultural films should be labeled and marked to promote proper disposal methods and allow for the product to be traceable throughout its lifecycle. And of course, policies and regulations must be enacted by governing bodies to enable an all-inclusive shift towards a circular agricultural economy.

The utility of plastics is undeniable, but so too is the threat they pose to the environment. Reassessing our reliance on plastics may prove to be a challenge, but it is necessary to protect the future of our planet and food system. In the meantime, all individuals, communities, and sectors should strive to properly dispose of our plastics and adopt alternatives where possible in order to reduce plastic pollution in the environment.

Jade Gallat, Agripreneurship Alliance

5 June 2023


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