Microplastics and Gardening

Microplastics and Gardening

By Michael Jenkins

Microplastics are a serious issue. As gardeners we care about the natural world and do our best to work with it, so it’s natural that we would be concerned about microplastics and their impact on our gardens and on the world as a whole. This is a complicated issue, and we won’t claim to be able to explore or explain it in full in this blog. However, we may be able to help other gardeners develop a better understanding of the issue and how they can adapt their gardening practices to help reduce the amount of microplastics in their lives. Microplastics and gardening may not be a cheerful subject, but it’s an important one—so let’s dig in.

What Are Microplastics?

While they’re often discussed in the news and in scientific literature, microplastics just as often misunderstood. This is in part because definitions of microplastics do vary a bit, but the most consistent one we could find defines microplastics as “tiny plastic particles measuring less than 5 mm in length.” The term was first coined over twenty years ago, but has grown in use over the last five years as people become more aware of and concerned with the issue. You may also hear the term “nanoplastics”, which refers to even smaller particles that can in theory penetrate cellular barriers, the blood-brain barrier, and travel via rain and wind to reach even the most remote locations on earth. 

Microplastics are associated with a variety of environmental and health issues. One scientific research paper we consulted noted that the microplastics that appear most commonly can have “cytotoxic, genotoxic and neurotoxic effects” on people, plants, and animals. Microplastics also take a long time to break down—thousands of years or more—meaning that the problems they cause will be with us for a while.

Where Do Microplastics Come From?

This is a very complicated question—as many of the sources we link to point out, research around microplastics is ongoing and we’re learning more every day. The microplastics we find in our soil and water typically come from disposable, single-use plastics. This obviously includes non-degradable plastic grocery bags, trash bags, and food containers. It also includes some cosmetics and toiletries—which include small plastic pieces as an abrasive or exfoliator—and industrial/construction waste. Only about 10% of plastics are actually recycled, meaning that there’s plenty of sources of microplastics in the world.

Reducing Microplastics in Our Gardens

Microplastics are found in food around the world, including food produced in backyard gardens and small farms. They are increasingly common, often transported via the fertilizers and soil amendments that large industrial farms use. While the problem is too big for any individual person to address, there are some steps you can take to reduce the amount of microplastics in our gardens and our individual contributions to the problem:

  • Reducing or eliminating single-use plastics is the biggest thing any of us can do to reduce our own impact and the impact of microplastics on our gardens. By eliminating single use plastics—or at least cutting back as best we can—we stop contributing to the problem. When single-use plastics are a necessity, recycling them appropriately can help mitigate their damage.
  • Picking up litter is an often-overlooked yet very important step in reducing microplastics. Plastic trash, which breaks down slowly out in the environment rather than in the relative safety of a landfill or by being recycled, is a primary source of microplastics. Picking up trash and either recycling it or disposing of it safely helps both the microplastics issue and the impact of trash pollution on wildlife.

  • Avoid easily damaged or disposable plastic materials in soil especially while landscaping or gardening. While plastic weed barriers may be convenient and plastic landscaping cloth is a staple, the reality is that these contribute microplastics to the soil. There are degradable and organic alternatives available, so please consider them when landscaping your spaces this spring.
  • Make your own compost—and take care of it! Commercial compost may contain microplastics, and by making your own compost and carefully ensuring that plastic labels, containers, and other non-degradable items stay out of your composter you can reduce the microplastics in your garden.

  • Make wise choices when purchasing gardening tools and containers. Plastics are everywhere, but plastics are not in and of themselves a bad thing. The problem arises when we treat them improperly or dispose of them inappropriately. Long-lasting garden containers and quality tools, terra cotta pots, or natural landscaping options can all help reduce the amount of microplastics in the world around us by preventing them from developing in the first place.

We genuinely hope that this blog helps raise awareness and understanding of the issues microplastics present for gardeners, gardens, and the natural world we’re all part of. At Gardzen we do our best to ensure that our products are made to the highest quality, last for years, and are recyclable when the time comes. The impact of microplastics is an evolving issue, so we’ll likely revisit it again in a future blog. In the meantime, let’s all do the best we can to reduce their impact.

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