Plastic in the Garden
We’ve had swelteringly hot weather followed days later by torrential downpours, which can only mean one thing: it’s the great British summer and the busiest time of year for our gardens. But with great gardening comes great amounts of plastic (worst misquote ever?). So where has plastic sneaked its way into your garden, and what can you do about it?
Whether it’s for growing your own food (good for reducing plastic and food miles!) or giving bee-friendly flowers a helping hand, compost is a must for home gardeners. Time / energy / space requirements sadly mean that not all of us can have our own garden compost heap, and this often means trudging to the garden centre to buy plastic bags of compost. But don’t throw away the plastic bags your compost comes in!
When you reach the end of the bag, take a look on the back and you’ll probably see a “recycle with carrier bags at larger supermarkets” symbol. All you need to do is take it with you when you go shopping (make sure it’s empty first!) and stick it in the carrier bag recycling bin, which you’ll usually find near the store entrance. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to put these bags in your kerbside recycling – please check your local council’s rules.
Of course, there are always things you can do to be a star pupil and avoid producing that waste in the first place. We’ve already mentioned having your own compost heap. If that’s a no-go, check out your local waste and recycling centre. It’s just possible that, like ours, they provide free compost, made from the council’s garden and food waste collections, that you can help yourself to. Turn up with a shovel and bag, and dig in!
Alternatively, if you’ve got a big gardening project coming up, see if you can get a bulk compost delivery in a big sack. Although they’re made from plastic, these sacks are often designed to be returned to the supplier and reused for future deliveries. You might be asked to pay a small deposit, which you’ll get back when you return the sack.
Cup of tea?
If you’re home composting, remember that tea bags often contain plastic. If you put them in your compost pile, you could eventually end up spreading this plastic on your garden when you come to use your compost. It’s all because the glue used for tea bag seals often contains polypropylene (plastic #5).
You’ve got two options for avoiding this plastic: either use loose leaf teas, or keep an eye out for tea bags labelled “plastic-free”, which are becoming more and more common in supermarkets.
Unless you buy everything as seeds or bare root plants, it’s nigh on impossible to stock up your garden without accumulating a shed load of plastic pots. We get through 500 million of these single-use pots each year in the UK and they often can’t go in your home recycling bin.
One reason for this is that some of them are made from polypropylene (plastic #5), which is rarely accepted in council collections. But even if your pots are HDPE (plastic #2) – a much easier plastic to recycle – they often can’t be put in your kerbside collection because they’re black, and black plastic can’t be processed in waste sorting centres.
It’s worth checking to see if your local garden centre has a collection point for returning used pots. There are also increasing numbers of suppliers offering plants in eco-friendly materials such as coir, wood and seaweed, some of which you actually plant in the ground and leave to biodegrade. As always, the best thing is to avoid acquiring new single-use plant pots in the first place by growing from seeds and cuttings, dividing plants, and buying bare root – just make sure the nursery you use offers plastic-free packaging.
Don’t go potty
We’ve already talked about those pots that new plants come in, but what about the decorative and permanent plant pots you buy separately? Ideally, we’d advise forgoing plastic ones because we want to keep plastic use to a minimum, particularly where there’s a risk of it contaminating the great outdoors.
Think twice about whether you really need that pretty but potentially unnecessary pot (we’ve all been there!). If you’re just growing something in a pot before planting it in the ground, use an old plastic one from the garden centre, a yoghurt pot, or even some newspaper. If a pot is a must, see if you can inherit a friend or neighbour’s unneeded ones, pick them up cheap at a charity shop, or browse Freecycle or similar websites for free ones.
Polytunnels, weed control covers & nets
Boy, does this stuff get everywhere! If you’ve read our blog post on microplastics [LINK] you’ll be familiar with the concept of plastic breaking down and infiltrating our seas and soils. No kind of plastic is completely immune from this microplastic shedding, so it seems a bit silly for us to be deliberately sticking plastic in the ground!
As the name suggests, polytunnels are made using polythene, with fleece covers generally made from polypropylene (plastic #5). While they’re good for growing your own fruit and veg, it’s very easy for these plastic sheets to get snagged and damaged by the wind, falling branches and animals, contributing to the problem of plastic on the loose in the environment.
The best ways of avoiding these kinds of plastic are through traditional remedies if you’re protecting your plants from pests, or by using greenhouses, cold frames, and even bamboo cloches to protect from frost and wind.
When it comes to rakes, spades, trowels, hoes and forks, finding a plastic-free option shouldn’t be too tricky. Just keep an eye out in the garden centre for wooden and metal ones (or, even better, get them second hand). They’ll be far more durable than a flimsy plastic product.
One particularly annoying bit of single-use plastic is those plant labels that come shoved into your plant pot. Let’s be honest here: most of us glance at them once, chuck them away and then promptly forget everything they said. Even if you’re organised and you stick them in the ground with your new plant, they’re likely to get lost, blown away or dug into the soil at some point. We know it’s tricky, but try where possible to avoid acquiring these pesky little labels. Or go one step further and nag garden centres and nurseries to do away with them in favour of more eco-friendly options.
Make do and mend
Everything garden-related ends up a bit mucky eventually, so there’s no point worrying about your stuff being pristine! Tape up split plastics, glue cracked ceramic pots, and take care of your tools so you can keep using them again and again, even if they look a bit tired on the outside. Store plastic items out of sunlight to prevent them degrading too quickly and keep metal tools somewhere dry to stop them rusting up.