Growing Your Own Vegetables Saves Plastic (Plus Other Ways Gardening Is Better For The Planet)
It’s a difficult question with no easy solution. And dwelling too long on the problem of plastic will send anyone spiraling down a deep, dark hole with no way out (I know, it happened to me).
Manufacturing plastic, as well as the byproducts and waste created by the process, is incredibly detrimental to the environment. Plastic washes from our landfills and roadsides into our rivers and oceans. The processes that produce plastics contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
You can give it your best effort to live a zero-waste life, but if you eat healthy foods and fresh produce, it’s hard to avoid plastic at the grocery store. So what can be done when everything from apples to cucumbers is packaged in plastic?
Keep reading to understand why the grocery industry uses single-use plastics and how you can make responsible choices in the produce aisle. Better yet, take up a shovel in your fight against plastic pollution and climate change.
How gardening saves the environment
It’s a small change for us, and perhaps a drop in the bucket in the problem of climate change, but it is something that many of us can feasibly do. Whether you have acres of land or a small patio garden, you can grow fruits and vegetables yourself and reap the benefits of healthy, delicious, affordable food.
If you’re an eco-conscious shopper, you’ve probably already noticed that most produce is packaged in plastic. You might find whole apples, tomatoes, and a bunch of bananas out in the open, but nearly everything else utilizes plastic packaging.
Salad greens come in plastic tubs, pre-cut squash is arranged on foam trays wrapped in cellophane, and whole individual cucumbers are shrink-wrapped. Potatoes are bagged in plastic mesh, and berries are sold in plastic pints and quarts.
Growing your own produce at home eliminates nearly all of this plastic packaging. Though gardening isn’t a zero-waste endeavor unless you take great pains to make it so, it is a way that we can significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste we create. The critical difference is that grocery store plastic are single-use plastics, whereas gardening plastics are often reusable.
A recent study by Wrap, published by the Guardian, found a link between plastic packaging and food waste (Wood). Single-use plastics are themselves wasteful, but wrapping bulk foods together forces the consumer to buy more than what they actually need, leading to more produce in garbage bins and landfills.
The study also found that plastic packaging does not necessarily prolong the shelf life of uncut produce. Storage methods and temperature are far more likely to affect the shelf life of produce than plastic packaging. Wrap’s research proves that plastic packaging is unnecessary and allows grocery stores to charge more for more food that the customer doesn’t really need.
Of course, there are reasons that producers and suppliers insist that produce needs to be wrapped in plastic. Food safety is the premier reason–from farmer to distributor to store stocker, there are a number of hands that touch fresh produce before it even makes to the shelves.
But if everyone vigilantly washed their produce after purchasing it, plastic packaging wouldn’t be needed on most fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
Growing your own vegetables at home allows each household to determine exactly how many plants are needed to feed the family, meaning that less produce goes to waste. For more information on garden planning and links to a few free tools, check out this article.
Even when gardens do produce excess, the extra produce can be donated to a food pantry or given away to family members and friends. What doesn’t get given away can be added to the compost pile and returned to the earth in the form of nutrients and organic matter.
Less energy used
Getting produce from the farm where it’s grown to the grocery store where we shop uses a lot of energy. According to Green America, produce travels about 1500 miles on average from the farm to your dinner table (Walton). Most produce is still transported great distances via traditional trucks that use fossil fuels.
Growing your own food at home eliminates some, but not all, of the environmental and financial costs of transporting fresh produce. Growers still need to use tools and equipment for their gardens, so check to see if there is a local garden supply store in your area. Supporting a local store is twofold–you put money back into the local economy and you minimize transportation and fossil fuel use.
Green America also draws attention to the devastating environmental effects of refrigerant leaks accumulated during the transport of perishable produce–almost as much as the emissions of 10 million vehicles.
Produce grown in a home garden can be picked as it’s needed, leaving produce to store on the plant itself, which is the most efficient way to store fruits and vegetables. Refrigeration is needed once vegetables are harvested, but at the home scale, the energy use is negligible. Extra in-season produce can be canned, dehydrated, or frozen and enjoyed later.
It’s staggering how many chemicals are used in commercial agriculture. Conventional farms use synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides to grow huge monocultures of crops. These chemicals damage healthy soil, causing problems with soil fertility and composition, as well as water quantity and quality.
The heavy machinery used in commercial agriculture contributes heavily to climate change. The Economic Research Service of the USDA estimates that 11.2% of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the agricultural sector (Walton).
Gardening at the individual or family level doesn’t produce near the greenhouse gas emissions that commercial farms do. And growing vegetables at home allows the grower to make their own informed decisions about which chemicals to use, if any. Organic is always better, but natural methods of mitigating pests and diseases are always better than chemicals.
Small steps for the eco-conscious grower and shopper
Take action and make a few of these tiny changes to make better choices for your own health and the health of the environment.
- Buy produce that isn’t already bagged or packaged in plastic
- Bring reusable bags and boxes to the grocery store. Store the bags in your car so you don’t forget them!
- When possible, bring your own reusable containers to buy bulk items.
- Avoid using plastic produce bags for vegetables. Bring paper bags or skip the bag entirely and wash your produce at home.
- If you can find them, buy produce seconds–imperfect produce is usually discarded for no other reason than cosmetics.
- Support a local farmer through Community-Supported Agriculture or at your local farmer’s market!
- While it is convenient, try to avoid purchasing pre-cut or prepared foods–these will be packaged in single-use plastics. But whole foods when you can and do the processing yourself.
- Find out what items are recyclable in your area and recycle them.
- Repurpose plastic containers as planters and seed trays
- Don’t use single-use plastics in your garden–sub zip ties and hortonova netting for compostable twine.
The battle against climate change starts with an inner audit of our own lives and practices. While it’s impossible to be perfectly zero-waste, there are a few small changes we can all make in our daily lives to be and do better. Minimize your use of single-use plastics, make intentional shopping choices at the grocery store, and start a vegetable garden to make a small difference in our world today.