Beautiful Native Plants

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Toward the Plastic-free Garden

Leaf recycling the natural way, an eternal cycle
© Beatriz Moisset
Plastics are a curse and a blessing. They are changing our world for better and for worse. That is why Susan Freinkel titled her book on this subject Plastic: "A Toxic Love Story." I recommend her ForaTV lecture.

The most serious trouble with plastics is that they are not truly recyclable. It is true that we place them by the curbside and they are taken by trucks to recycling facilities. If all goes as it should, that plastic is turned into something else and given a new life. But that doesn’t complete the circle back to the original components. Perhaps it should be called something else, down-cycling, half-cycling?
Recycled or not, this is where plastics end up
© Kevin Krejci. Flickr
Nature is the supreme recycler. Let us see how it does it. A leaf takes minerals and water from the soil, and carbon dioxide from the air. Using energy from sunlight, it combines these raw materials into organic matter. In the fall, the leaf dies and falls to the ground. The recycling process gets under way. Insects chew it down, fungi and bacteria take over and continue breaking it down into simpler and simpler molecules. It may take months or years; the raw materials go back to their original state — minerals, water, and carbon dioxide to be used again. The process is a perfect circle.

Sometimes the full cycle requires more steps. A caterpillar eats the leaf. A songbird eats the caterpillar, and a hawk eats the songbird. When the bird of prey dies, it returns to the soil, completing the cycle. Or, the leaf sends the final product, the organic matter, down to the trunk of the tree where it becomes wood. It may take many years, even centuries, but in the end the wood returns to the soil, and the circle is completed.

This recycling has been going on from the beginning of life on the planet and will continue until the end. Without it there would be no life. Let us compare with the “recycling” performed by us, humans.

Aluminum is fully recyclable. It can be melted again and again indefinitely. Glass is almost as recyclable. Paper, like leaves, is made of organic matter. So, if processed properly, is also fully recyclable.

At least in theory, those major components of the waste stream can complete the entire cycle repeatedly. Plastic is another matter. Leaving aside the complexities of the variety of plastics, let us say that plastics are not recyclable. So far no true biodegradable plastics exists. So they are only converted to lower-grade plastics and used for some purposes. After that they reach the end of the line, never going full circle. Waste of some sort accumulates inexorably, and it is beginning to impact the environment in alarming ways.

So, what can we do in our gardens to prevent the accumulation of plastics? We know that the three R’s of environmental responsibility are in descending order of importance: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. With plastics we should change it to: Reduce, Reduce, and Reduce. Complete elimination may be impossible. But reduction should be a top priority. Let us make it our New Year’s Resolution.

Plastic mulch in the garden
© mmwm. Flickr
 We have to educate ourselves on the ways to reduce plastics in the garden. An Internet search of the more professional websites was rather disappointing. For example, the Universities of North Carolina, Connecticut, and New Mexico discuss the advantages and disadvantages of plastic mulch. None of the websites mentions the most serious disadvantage, damage to the environment, and none has suggestions on how to replace it.

Fortunately, other sites are rich on tips about how to create a plastic-free garden
The Ecology Center, an organization devoted to goals of ecological sustainability, lists a number of misconceptions about the recycling of plastics, for instance the belief that curbside collection will reduce the amount of plastic landfilled. It doesn’t work this way if it encourages us to use more plastic. This site emphasizes the importance of “reduce” and “reuse” in its list of suggestions.

A good resource for gardeners interested in reducing plastics is the Rodale Institute. Their article “7 Ways To Get Plastic Out Of Your Vegetable Garden” has some excellent suggestions. Using organic instead of plastic mulches is so important that they expand the subject in “The Easiest Ways to Drought-Proof Your Garden." They also discuss plastic-free living in the home as well as the garden in “Our 5 Favorite Lessons Learned from Plastic-Free Living.” They recommend choosing the right hose. Even small details can be helpful, like using popsicle sticks instead of plastic plant labels or daylily dying leaves as plant ties. The readers of these articles proposed other ideas, such as cutting strips of metal from soft drink cans to use as labels, and painting the names of plants on small rocks. Every bit helps. Every suggestion counts.

What can we do about the ubiquitous plastic plant pots?
© Beatriz Moisset
Let us strive toward the plastic-free garden: Reduce, Reduce, and Reduce! Do you have your own favorite methods? I am sure the readers of “BeautifulNative Plants” have a lot to teach the rest of the world.

© 2013, Beatriz Moisset. First published in Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens