Letter to the editor: Plastic mulch raises concerns
The use of plastic mulch by hemp growers this past summer brought a new dimension to the Vermont landscape. We have all been aware of ‘ag plastics’ like hay bale coverings and maple sap pipeline for some time, but we assumed the waste plastic would be managed appropriately. Acres of land covered with plastic mulch is something new. It goes against everything I believe about how to treat the land. If I am out hiking or camping and I see plastic on the ground, I pick it up. Loose in any environment it symbolizes carelessness and abuse and I could not suppress those feelings when I saw how much land was being intentionally covered in plastic. I waited for the end of the growing season, hoping to see the plastic mulch and irrigation pipe picked up. That has not happened.
I decided to see if there were any regulations to manage and control ag plastic waste, and contacted my three local state legislators, as well as two individuals in the Vermont Agency of Agriculture responsible for enforcing ag regulations. I was a little surprised by the responses because they indicated confusion about the rules. The main cause of confusion seems to be a program intended to manage ag plastic waste overseen by the Vermont Ag Public Health and Resource Management Division. This is a voluntary program, which, according to Stephanie Smith, chief policy enforcement officer for the Ag agency, is ‘not being effective at managing this material.’ Based on the existence of this ineffective program, one Agency of Ag regulator I contacted, as well as one of our local state reps, thought the problem was being addressed. It is not.
The good news is that there is an effort going on now in the legislature and Agency of Ag to take a serious look at ag plastic in general. I learned of this work from an inquiry about plastic mulch that I sent to VPIRG. If you are concerned about the future of the landscape as the use of plastic grows, I encourage you to contact your state legislators. There are important reasons to be concerned.
Biodegradable plastic mulch is not allowed for organic farming under the National Organic Farm program of the USDA. This is because questions remain about possible toxic residues left in the ground when the plastic degrades. The implication is that any plastic degrading openly in the environment is at the very least undesirable.
A hard and real consequence of using biodegradable plastic mulch is that land so used cannot be certified for organic farming for an undetermined number of years. The Organic Farm program allows use of some non-degradable plastic mulch, but it must be removed from the ground at the end of the growing season, and disposed of somehow — some states allow it to be burned, others landfilled. None of those ‘solutions’ is consistent with being a good steward of the land. There is a body of growing information from places that have been using plastic mulch for some time.
China is a big user of plastic mulch. A report from Reuters news agency last July reported “…China uses about 2 million to 3 million tonnes of plastic mulch every year, but waste treatment capacity amounts to just 180,000 tonnes… While the use of plastic film can boost yields significantly in the short term, unrecovered remnants eventually degrade the soil and can also contaminate crops, with Chinese exports of spinach and ginger found to contain traces of plastic.” One of the soil degradation impacts is reduced ability to absorb water once the plastic content of the soil reaches a certain threshold.
There are certainly short-term benefits to plastic mulch, but the appearance of the countryside is not one of them, and the consequences go deeper than appearances. There is good reason to be cautious about plastic mulch, and to ask that growers take responsibility for the full life-cycle costs of the waste as fair payment for the benefits gained. If volunteer programs like the one already in place don’t work, then legislators need to try something else. I will contact my legislators with a message like this:
I understand that there is a voluntary program in Vermont to manage agricultural plastic waste that is not effective in handling this problem. Since this ineffective program only serves to confuse people about whether anything is being done, I urge you to get this program off the books and replace it with one that requires responsible management of ag plastic waste. This problem is worthy of your attention because the increasing use of ag plastic has implications for soil and water quality, landscape aesthetics, food purity and landfill space, among other issues. Thank you for your consideration.
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