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Plastic scraps: biodegradable mulch films and the aesthetics of ‘good farming’ in US specialty crop production

Abstract

Agriculture is a serious contributor to pollution and other environmental harms, making it an important site of action for the development of environmentally friendly products and practices. However, farmer adoption of such options is varied and dependent on a wide range of factors including the visual appeal (i.e., aesthetics) of sustainable farming. Recent studies have shown that negative aesthetics related to more environmentally friendly ways of farming can delay or prevent adoption of such practices. Drawing on the concepts of good farming, cultural capital, and the aesthetics of waste, this paper aims to assess the status of biodegradable plastic mulch (BDM) in relation to a range of alternative and conventional specialty crop growers’ aesthetic perceptions. BDM has the potential to significantly reduce non-biodegradable polyethylene (PE) mulch waste, thus addressing serious environmental and human health concerns. However, the aesthetics of BDM may present a challenge. BDM looks identical to PE plastic, and its degradation throughout the season results in scraps in the soil. To investigate aesthetics as a possible barrier to BDM adoption, we conducted five photo-elicitation focus groups with specialty crop growers in Washington State. Results indicate that alternative growers are slightly more adverse to the aesthetics of BDM, especially because of its ‘plastic’ appearance. Conventional growers had higher rates of BDM adoption, even though they felt a strong aesthetic aversion to the messy nature of BDM degradation. Confidence in the product, particularly as a result of education and experience, was believed to be the key to overcoming this negative aesthetic. Study participants offered a variety of ways to enhance the acceptability of BDM, such as making the mulch brown instead of black. These findings have wider implications for the acceptance and adoption of practices that, although environmentally friendly, have an unattractive visual element.

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Abbreviations

BDM:

Biodegradable plastic mulch

PE:

Polyethylene

OMRI:

Organic Materials Review Board

ASTM International:

American Society for Testing and Materials International

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by USDA-NIFA Specialty Crop Research Initiative award #2014-51181-22383 on ‘Performance and Adoptability of Biodegradable Plastic Mulch for Sustainable Specialty Crop Production’. The authors gratefully acknowledge Chris Benedict and Jeremy Cowan for their role in organizing the focus groups. Additionally, we acknowledge the invaluable contributions of our focus group participants.

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Correspondence to Katherine Dentzman.

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Dentzman, K., Goldberger, J.R. Plastic scraps: biodegradable mulch films and the aesthetics of ‘good farming’ in US specialty crop production. Agric Hum Values 37, 83–96 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-019-09970-x

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Keywords

  • Good farming
  • Aesthetics
  • Capital
  • Sustainable farming
  • Plasticulture
  • Photo elicitation
  • Waste