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The plastic pollutant hiding in plain site

Research has found that farm plastics are a major pollution problem but not a priority for supermarkets. By David Burrows

There is more plastic in soils than in the sea, warned the Food and Agriculture Organization in 2021, but is anything being done about it? Not really, according to research published by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

Agriplastics include protective greenhouse covers, plastic mulching, netting, pipes for irrigation and silage films. They increase short-term crop yields and extend local growing seasons, but can also reduce long-term productivity by deteriorating soil quality, EIA noted. They can also contaminate land, rivers, oceans and air.

The campaigners quizzed 10 UK supermarkets – Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose – about use of agriplastic within their supply chains and what they are doing to manage any pollution risks.

All the supermarkets have engaged somewhat with suppliers on the issue – through trials, raising awareness or third-party certification standards – but only Lidl said it had sufficient information about the impact and risks of agriplastic pollution on the environment and human health. Measurable objectives, company-level sourcing policies and funding were also found to be lacking across all the chains.

Indeed, seven supermarkets are currently working in some capacity with suppliers on the reduction and responsible management of agriplastics, with four supermarkets having more than one project underway in certain produce or product categories. However, none of the projects had any measurable or time-bound targets.

In the UK, only 30% of non-packaging agri-plastics, such as polytunnels and bale wrap — excluding packaging such as chemical containers and sacks — is collected for reuse, according to APE (Agriculture Plastics Environment) UK, an industry-led initiative aiming to increase recycling of farm plastics.

“[These supermarkets] have other sustainability targets, including plastic packaging reduction targets but little or nothing regarding the plastics being used by their suppliers to cultivate food and the devastating pollution that results,” said Lauren Weir, EIA senior ocean campaigner.

“We need genuinely sustainable alternatives and for those with the purchasing power, such as our major grocery retailers, to take unified action across their international supply chains to ensure the UK’s food supply chain does not result in driving damage in other sourcing regions,” she added.

The 10 supermarkets all said they’d welcome a sector-wide initiative dedicated to tackling agriplastic pollution. EIA called for “immediate and urgent action” on the most damaging agriplastics – microplastic applications and mulch films – and warned against simply switching to other materials (as many have done with consumer-facing packaging). Substitution is a “false solution”, the group said. 

The National Farmers’ Union has called for more research into bio-based alternatives to plastic that could be composted on farms. The Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association has argued that its members “make materials which are designed to resolve this pollution”. 

Some 12.5 million tonnes of plastic is used in agricultural production every year, FAO noted in its global report, the majority (93%) of it on land – which makes soil the likely destination for anything that’s damaged, degraded and discarded. How much, what happens to it all and the impact it has are poorly understood, according to the Environment Agency’s 2019 ‘The state of the environment: soil’ report. There are also increasing concerns about the levels of plastic spread to land in digestate and sewage sludge.

Other than an unsupported agriplastic burying and burning ban, the UK government has little or no policy ideas or plans to address the issues, despite having the regulatory responsibility to do so, said EIA. 

Others have been trying to raise awareness for years. “Healthy soils are vital to sustaining food supplies, act as a critical flood defence and store three times more carbon than the atmosphere, yet the UK does nothing as study after study reveals that plastic contamination of soil is even worse than it is in the sea,” Ellen Fay, director of the Sustainable Soils Alliance (SSA), told Ends Report following the FAO report.

EIA is calling for mandatory reporting on agricultural plastic products and an extended producer responsibility scheme for the materials. Further research into alternatives and their benefits and trade-offs is needed, as well as support for agroecology and permaculture in UK farms to help reduce agriplastic use. 

The new research comes in the midst of fruit and vegetable shortages. The trouble is that agricultural plastic helps grow more food in a hungry world, APE UK chief executive Ian Creasey told the FT. “Plastics play a really important part in farm life and have environmental benefits,” he said. “That works if you efficiently collect the plastic on the farm. It doesn’t work if there isn’t that ‘circularity’ and you let that plastic get burnt or go to landfill.”