Plastic and Organic: How to break the connection
The Organic Center and Organic Trade Association team up to address the issue
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Washington, D.C. (April 26, 2023) — Plastic is everywhere. Since the invention of plastic in the 1950s, its use has exploded throughout the world. Plastic is used in construction, cars, furniture, toys, textiles, medical devices, countless household products, and throughout our agriculture and food system. It’s been a miracle product, as well as a scourge on our environment and sometimes even our health.
The production of plastic contributes high quantities of pollutants to the environment, with one pound of plastic creating three pounds of carbon dioxide during manufacturing, which disproportionately impacts marginalized communities. Society’s overuse of plastic causes chemical leaching into soils and waterways, and the poisoning of wildlife on land and in water. With only a small proportion of plastic being recycled, most plastics end up in waste systems, permeating our soils, or flowing through waterways into oceans. And in addition to the environmental risks, the health of our bodies can be compromised in a wide variety of ways by the thousands of chemicals used to make plastic.
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is partnering with The Organic Center (TOC) to present the 2023 Organic Confluences: Reducing Plastics Along the Entire Organic Supply Chain on May 9 and 10 in the nation’s capital to convene scientists, industry experts and organic stakeholders from across the supply chain to strategize on how to break the plastic cycle and reduce plastic use from the farm to the table.
The Organic Confluences sessions are part of OTA’s 2023 Organic Week in Washington, D.C. The sessions will take place throughout the day on Tuesday and the morning of Conference Day on Wednesday. Registration for Organic Week and Organic Confluences is open here.
“The organic sector’s use of plastics is a key concern for everyone involved in the organic food system – from the organic farmer to the organic retailer,” said Dr. Amber Sciligo, Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center. “The use of synthetics such as plastics is at odds with traditional organic values, but plastic is used for critical tools that serve important functions. For instance, farmers can replace herbicide and pesticide sprays, and reduce water consumption with tools like plastic mulch and drip tape. Available alternatives to plastic that also meet the National Organic Program's standards just aren’t there yet. Our conference is gathering individuals from every aspect of organic because finding a solution to this critical issue requires input and collaboration across the sector. This isn’t just organic’s problem to solve, but we can be leaders on the path to change.”
The food chain uses lots of plastic. Farmers use it for row covers, in mulch, irrigation tubing, nursery containers and more. Distributors use it to pack and ship food. Plastic packaging has proliferated in grocery stores for everything from fresh produce to take-out containers from the deli.
Plastic is essential on many organic farms. Sheets of plastic are commonly used as a form of mulch to control weeds and conserve water. But most of this plastic usually ends up in a landfill, and many organic farmers are searching for a better and more environmentally-friendly way. That’s where biodegradable plastic mulches come in. Plastic mulch made of polyethylene is the most widely used plastic mulch because it is easy to manufacture, durable and affordable. But it is not biodegradable. Biodegradable plastic mulches have been developed, but are still open to questions about how completely they break down, and if their use in organic would comply with organic standards.
Off the farm, organic distributors and retailers are searching for safe and cost-efficient alternative packaging to plastic. The issue of BPA (Bisphenol A) in plastic packaging and whether it should be allowed in certified organic packaging has long been under discussion at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). While several independent companies and farmers have developed suitable packaging substitutes for plastic, a cohesive strategy and framework for plastic alternatives has not been developed and this remains an NOSB research priority.
“Because of the multifaceted nature of the issue of reducing plastic use in organic production, processing, and distribution, effective discussions investigating strategies for plastic alternatives and organic regulations of plastic use require input and collaboration across the organic sector. I’m excited to have representatives from the whole supply chain in the same room having this discussion together, instead of tackling each component separately, as is typically done,” said Sciligo.
The Organic Center’s conference will address the challenges of plastic from the perspective of waste, climate change, and environmental and human health. It will bring together scientists with farmers, retailers, processors, distributors and policymakers. Farmers will be able to share their needs, priorities and experiences with plastic and alternatives; researchers and plastic-alternative innovators can offer potential solutions; and policy experts can guide the discussion in the context of current National Organic Program (NOP) requirements and future NOP direction.
“Our long-term goal is to increase the sustainability of organic production by reducing the use of plastic across the entire organic food chain. Our overall objective is to expand communication and collaboration across the diverse organic sector with policymakers and researchers at the table so that the industry can reimagine plastic use in organic production,” said Sciligo.
About The Organic Center
The OrganCenter's mission is to convene credible, evidence-based science on the health and environmental impacts of organic food and farming and to communicate the findings to the public. The Center is an independent non-profit 501(c)(3) research and education organization operating under the administrative auspices of the Organic Trade Association.
About the Organic Trade Association
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. OTA is the leading voice for the organic trade in the United States, representing over 9,500 organic businesses across 50 states. Its members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others. OTA's Board of Directors is democratically elected by its members. OTA's mission is to promote and protect ORGANIC with a unifying voice that serves and engages its diverse members from farm to marketplace.