Plastic pollution and the quest for a more sustainable garden February 14, 2018 19:11

Can a garden ever be truly green? 

Like most people, I was truly moved and slightly heartbroken by that Blue Planet programme. Ever since, have been looking around at the plastic in our lives, wondering how, in our own small way, we can make more of a difference to such a huge, catastrophic problem.

While we do our best to recycle as effectively as possible from within the home (and business), my thoughts soon headed towards the direction of the shed. Inside my decrepit old shed are piles of black plastic gardening pots. Concerned that they were not recyclable, and unable to bring myself to hurl them into the 'black' bin, I've been inadvertently hoarding them for years, thinking 'when I have time to really get going on cuttings, this lot will be useful'. 

Er, I've been thinking that same thought for eight years

As it turns out, I am not the only one. According to AShortWalk, it is estimated that we each own about 39 redundant plastic plant pots. Furthermore, across the UK, there are over 5 million plastic pots languishing in sheds. 

Use of plastic in the garden doesn't stop there. While I don't really go in for plastic pots and planters, my pond is lined with some kind of plastic. I've lined my big apple bins with a thick polythene to grow wild flowers. It hadn't occurred to me that the plastic I use not only may end up in landfill, but it may also be leaching out harmful chemicals that make it into plants - eek!? All of this has left me wondering if my efforts to maintain an organic garden, and create an environment that is as wildlife friendly as possible are, well, a little naive? 

I've tried to look into things a little deeper, and to be honest, it's a minefield. However, here is what I've gleaned so far...

1. Not all plastics are the same.  So this one had completely passed me by. Just because a piece of plastic has that triangular looking sign on it, it does not mean that is safe, or unsafe. Nor does it mean that you can put it out in the recycling bin. Instead, the code inside the triangle indicates the chemicals used in it's creation; likelihood of leaching, biodegradability and more. A quick check on my stack of plant pots in the shed indicates that all they appear to be code 5: polypropylene. The good news is while it won't be collected by many council refuse collections, it can be recycled. More on that in point three. 

2. Garden hoses might pose more of a problem than pots: So, when I was thinking about plastic and it's role in the garden, I was thinking about the single use stuff - plastic pots; that polystyrene stuff that surrounds a lot of bedding plants and plugs that you can buy in garden nurseries. One thing that never crossed my mind was the common garden hose. However, a study undertaken by Healthy Stuff - a project born out of The Ecology Centre - a nonprofit environmental organisation in Michigan, USA, changed all that. Having previously examined over 200 hoses in separate studies undertaken between 2011 - 2013, the 2016 study tested 32 garden hoses on sale in major US retailers and online. Although improvements had been made in the intervening years, the 2016 study found that high levels of toxic lead and phthalate chemicals are still present in many garden hoses. The new research also discovered that half of the vinyl (PVC) hoses tested contained electronic waste along with vinyl contaminated with toxic chemicals. When I started looking into plastic in the garden, my thought had been about those awful scenes of mile after mile of sea water, littered with rubbish. Now, my thoughts turned closer to home. Suddenly, I was reading about chemicals that cause premature births, cancer, hormone disruption. So, moral of the story for me, check the label when you buy a new garden hose, see whether it is safe to drink from. And don't let the kids drink the water from the hose.

3. Something to be cheerful about. Companies such as AShortWalk are creating design led, innovative new products using old rubbish, including those plant pots!! Hurrah! AShortWalk has a recycling scheme that allows you to return your pots to a nearby garden centre, which in turn, pass your pot back to AShortWalk. The circular economy in action! Fantastic. Against what I'd read over the last few week's, finding AShortWalk provided a much needed tonic. 

Big changes start with small steps

Most gardeners I know are pretty handy when it comes to making something out of nothing. After all, that is one of the simple pleasures of the garden - having a bare patch of earth and cultivating it into something that can provide food or flowers. In the same vein, recycling and renewal is deeply connected to gardening. Whether it is composting garden waste; making a plant pot stand from an old set of ladders; or whizzing up a contraption to keep the birds off the berries, gardeners are a canny lot and tend to have their own methods for combining style with substance. 

    But for me, I think it would be pretty great if garden nurseries and customers could really work together to find new and different ways of doing things. Independent garden nurseries are undergoing huge change, diversifying to offer something different from the big DIY centres. Many are beautiful, experiential places; offering food, snacks, gift shopping on top of well maintained, high quality plants. They are a place to meet up with friends, or get away from it all. And I think together, customer and retailer could make some headway. I'd love to be able to take my own container down to my local nursery, choose my shrub that is still in the ground and take it away in the box, bag or trug I had brought with me. I have no idea how doable this would be, but wouldn't it be great to apply the same philosophy of pick your own to plants as well as edibles? Joining forces to create compost, rather than buying peat based compost in plastic bags might also be another area where community and local retailer could join forces. A few creative conversations and small changes could help to create a better, greener garden for all. And there has never been a better time to get going. 

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