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Master of Environmental Science and Management: Master's Group Project
(2021)

Reducing Agricultural Plastics’ Environmental Impacts

Fresh blueberries in a carton.

Deliverables:

Final Report

Executive Summary

Final Presentation

Description

Plastic use is increasing at an unsustainable rate. The global use of agricultural plastic was estimated at 4.4 Mt in 2012, with the agricultural plastics market growing annually at a rate of 7.6% from 2013-2019. Although consumer-facing food packaging has gotten substantial media attention, agricultural systems use plastics for a variety of purposes as well. From seedling transport to irrigation systems to in-field structures, plastic is an effective tool to reduce food waste and improve yields on farms. However, agricultural plastics also come with a host of negative environmental impacts, particularly with waste generation and disposal. While agricultural plastics provide significant agronomic benefits, their production and use contribute to global warming, nutrient runoff, and surface erosion and may impact long-term yields. Because most agricultural plastics are designed for single use, they need to be constantly produced, exacerbating impacts from production. Their single-use nature also contributes to the growing volume of plastic waste. Due to their high soil contamination rates, agricultural plastics are difficult to recycle and thus are sent to landfills where they do not decompose. Many US landfills are nearing capacity, which can increase tipping fees for farmers and require further land use change. To address the growing concerns with agricultural plastics, this project conducted life cycle assessments of various end of life options (landfill, mechanical recycling, incineration, and pyrolysis) and identified the environmental tradeoffs of each option. We identified end-of-life disposal options to support independent growers in decreasing the environmental impacts of field plastic disposal.

Acknowledgements

Bren School: Roland Geyer, Professor; Ashley Larsen, Assistant Professor; Jason Maier, PhD Candidate

Driscoll’s: James duBois, Senior Manager of Global Environmental Impact; Kyle Monper, Regional Environmental Manager; Tannis Thorlakson, Senior Manager Environment

Gene Jones, CEO, SWIX