Plastic-free farming

Plastic use

At Sims Hill we are always concerned to be as sustainable as possible. We take the following steps to reduce our plastic use:

  • No buying plastic bags for shares. We use either cotton/jute bags or net bags. The net bags are made of plastic but we are reusing the ones we receive from wholesalers to reduce our waste on the site, we do not buy these. We ask members to return their bags (net or cotton) so that we are always reusing these bags in a happy circular bag economy.
  • No bags on robust vegetables, which make up the majority of our crops. Veg like potatoes, cabbage, onions, carrots and other root veg come well protected by nature, we don’t need to add any extra packaging to them.
  • And most importantly: as a local Community Supported Agriculture scheme we are only producing the food each week that our members are actually going to take home. We are not stocking up shelves with food that will be put in the bin or go off before it even reaches someone’s home. This means we use massively less plastic than a supermarket – even the ones with “plastic free” sections.

Why are we not entirely “plastic free”?

We fully support the movement to go entirely zero-waste, and we are doing everything we can to reduce our plastic use in all aspects of the farm. However, as of Spring 2019 we still use “normal” plastic bags for our salad and delicate leaves. We have researched and tested various solutions, and are always looking for new ideas. At the moment this is what we have found.

Proposal 1: No bags.

If we didn’t use plastic bags for delicate green leaves (e.g. leaving them loose in crates), we have found that they go off too quickly and then are wasted. No one wants to turn up for their vegetables and find a big tray of squelchy compost or unsalvageable shriveled leaves – and this will happen within hours with the warm but damp conditions so common in our lovely south west. Food waste is also an enormous issue and massively damages the environment by wasting the work of the land.

Proposal 2: Paper bags.

We have also tested this, but the same issue of leaf deterioration occurs. We don’t want to be handing out bags of “pre-composted” salad leaves after we have worked so hard in the polytunnels to grow them!

Proposal 3: Recycle plastic bags from members.

Unfortunately, as a business we can’t reuse small plastic bags because of health and safety regulations. We simply aren’t allowed, as there could be a build up of dangerous bacteria and we do not want to harm the health of our members. We strongly encourage members to reuse the bags at home themselves, but as a business we are not allowed to do this.

Proposal 4: “Degradable” plastic bags.

Our farm manager James has done a lot of research on the newer alternatives to plastics, including speaking to council waste managers. “Degradable” plastic is currently not actually composted by local councils as their facilities cannot manage it. The material, although technically degradable, takes a long time to compost in a home composting system as the conditions are not right. So even though they are labelled as “degradable” they will not actually be degrading. They are also significantly more expensive than “normal” plastic bags.

Proposal 5: “Compostable” plastic bags.

Similar issues face “compostable” bags – they are not always composted by council sites or suitable for reasonable home composting. (See here for a BBC report on the issue in Wales). Also, at the moment “compostable” bags are sometimes made from sources that are themselves unsustainable or compete with food for land use. We do not want to be deforesting land in the sake of appearing more green. They are also often three times more expensive than “normal” plastic bags.

We think that in the near future, “compostable” plastic bags will become a viable alternative. We are actively keeping a look out for a good source of compostable plastic bags that come from forestry by-products so they are recycling a waste product, not competing for land. We will transition as soon as we find a source that is affordable and meets these sustainability criteria. We know other organisations locally and nationally are facing similar quandaries, so hopefully it is something that the sector can solve soon.

Proposal 6: “Normal” plastic bags.

So, we are stuck with “normal” bags for the moment. Our approach is:

  • Only use them when absolutely necessary. Delicate salad and green leaves that will not survive without protection.
  • Only package the number of leaves required each week. This is a massively important part of reducing waste, and a huge benefit from being a community veg delivery scheme rather than a supermarket.
  • Encourage our members to reuse the plastic bags they receive at home.
  • Support the “eco-brick” initiative. This initiative gives some confidence that the plastic is not going to end up in landfill. See a video on how to make them and check out local organisation “Bricking it” to find your nearest drop off point.
  • As a last resort, the “normal” plastic bags we currently use can be recycled at supermarket recycling points. However, it is difficult to know where this plastic ends up so we encourage members to do their own reuse actions or eco-bricks and consider this as a final resort.

Here’s hoping and acting for a plastic-free future for all of us and the earth.