The Blue Planet II episode on the impact of plastic on the marine community was a galvanising moment in public awareness – while we have all had a gnawing sense of the impact of our plastic use on the environment, the vivid and gut-wrenching images of how our seas and sea animals are being devastated by it, was a true wake-up call. It is an issue in the forefront of the public imagination, more concrete and pressing to many people than climate change itself. Plastic is pervasive through our environment – we use it for everything and there is no simple solution to the massive problem that we have in its disposal.

The role of plastics on-farm and in the food supply chain has been an increasing concern of the Sustainable Food Trust. Interested in foregrounding this issue, the SFT recently organised a panel at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, Plastics after Blue Planet II – As food producers and retailers how can we wean ourselves off our dependency on plastics?, to explore what might be done to address plastic use in the food system. With statistics like “supermarkets flooding Britain with 59 billion pieces of plastic packaging a year” reported in our press, we felt it important to discuss with farmers the contribution they can make to this debate. UK farms produce 13,000 tonnes of waste plastic each year, mostly from silage bags and fleece, and changing on-farm systems to reduce this is expensive, as often there are no local facilities available for recycling.

The session was moderated by Adele Jones, the SFT’s head of external relations, who briefly outlined the key issues. As an activist against plastic pollution and SFT staff member who founded the Keynsham Wombles and #NoPlaceForLitter, I opened the panel. My concern for plastic litter started with Rebecca Hosking’s documentary Message in the Waves, which focuses on the harm that plastics cause to animals, and how species such as the Albatross are becoming extinct because of our inability as humans to dispose of our plastics properly. Already a keen litter picker, I developed the Keynsham Wombles into a vibrant and active community litter picking group in my home town.

I soon realised how vital it was to change people’s behaviour and habits to prevent the creation of litter in the first place. To achieve this, it is necessary to involve the whole community, including businesses, schools, food producers and retailers. From this realisation, #NoPlaceForLitter was born which aims to support others who might want to start litter picking groups, as well as working across communities to link people together because litter is a community wide problem.

I commented that working with food producers and retailers is a vital part of creating change, but it can be difficult to engage with the national retailers – much of whose packaging creates the litter. Keynsham Plastic Re-Action was formed largely out of desperation, and a protest at Tesco was planned to capture the supermarket’s attention. This coincided with Michael Gove’s announcement on plastic waste, and the BBC picked up on the protest and posted a video of the group. This went viral, with over 18.5 million views, and has created a movement of people all over the world who return their plastic packaging to the store once they have shopped.

I believe that many consumers are now avoiding the major retailers in an effort to cut their use of plastic packaging. But shopping local isn’t always the solution; for example, meat bought from a farmers’ market will inevitably be wrapped in plastic. I challenged the other speakers and the audience to think how they might reduce plastic in their lives.

The discussion then shifted more specifically to on-farm plastic use and packaging with comments by Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organic Farmers and Robyn Copley-Wilkins, Riverford’s Packaging Technologist. Plastic has always been a major issue for Riverford’s customers and the company has increasingly worked to remove plastic from their produce and packaging. However, there have been problems along the way, including trialling plastics that break down, but which actually proved to be more of a problem than ‘normal’ plastic. Guy was at pains to explain how important it was to be very careful when making decisions around packaging and plastic use, as it is a very complex issue. Riverford has been reviewing their plastic use and changing to alternatives where this is possible and practicable – even if it costs the business more money. However, Robyn commented that for certain produce, like loose leaf salad, they have been unable to find a suitable non-plastic substitute. And further, for some re-usable packaging, the addition of a plastic lining significantly increases the number of times that it can be reused.

Guy emphasised that producers of plastic must be made responsible for its end use, with Robyn adding that, “If people want to change then the market will provide.” But Guy also noted in the session that, “My main worry about the plastics debate is that I think it is a distraction from climate change. If you look at it positively it could be an entry into the debate, if we decide that we can no longer use our planet as a dumping ground for our ill sought-out products and waste. But I’m afraid [you] could also… think that because you’ve got rid of the plastic straws you can get on the plane and fly to New York and everything will be alright.”

Stuart Roberts, vice-president of the NFU, spoke last, promising to start a litter picking group where he lived, as he had been so inspired by the Keynsham Wombles. He said that he had recently installed a silage clamp (an alternative to wrapping silage in plastic) to reduce the amount of plastic used on his farm, as had SFT director Patrick Holden, but they both agreed this was an expensive thing to do. They had both made the change to reduce their plastic use, and not because it was a sensible business decision. Stuart went on to say that the NFU are actively looking at ways to help farmers reduce their plastic use. He stated that this needs to be made easy for farmers – which is not currently the case, at all. For instance, it is currently illegal for farmers to bury or burn on-farm plastics, but facilities and systems for collection of used plastics are an additional expense and not always easy to access.

The presentations were followed by an interesting question and answer session with the audience, with most people seeming to agree that change was essential. Patrick suggested that there should be some sort of audit to weigh the amount of plastic which farms return to the official plastic disposal sites, so there is a record of use.

For farmers and producers to reduce and change their use of plastic could mean major changes to our food distribution networks. Plastic currently enables food to travel long distances without damage and as Guy has already discovered, cucumbers become food waste very quickly without protection when bringing them into the UK from France. While there is a great willingness for change, it will be complex and will undoubtedly result in a reevaluation of farm infrastructure and a relocalisation of our food chains, as well as investment in new packaging products.

Photograph: .Craig

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news