As you travel along the Central Coast of California, you will pass farms with seemingly endless rows of strawberries, showing only a glimpse of the full production scale. Over 40,000 acres of CA soil is dedicated to growing strawberries, it may be hard to imagine, but those 40,000 acres are covered in plastic mulch used to shield strawberry beds. Plasticulture (the science and technologies associated with using plastic in agriculture), has revolutionized the global agricultural industry, allowing growers to influence abiotic and biotic factors that can improve crop production. Plasticulture has provided growers with a plethora of benefits such as using less water and agrochemicals, however, improper management and escape of the plastic from fields can lead to pollution and marine debris.
In 2019, California Marine Sanctuary Foundation (CMSF) and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) conducted an assessment of agricultural field plastic use, pollution risk, and solutions in Monterey county. The primary agriculture field plastic found in watersheds draining into MBNMS waters was polyethylene (PE) mulch and fumigation film. In order to address the risk of agricultural plastic pollution from entering National Marine Sanctuaries; CMSF, California Sea Grant, Andros Engineering, Flipping Iron, global berry-shipper brands, growers, and agricultural industry partners, proposed “Commercially Scalable End-Of-Life Solutions for Agriculture Field Plastic Films used in Watersheds draining to National Marine Sanctuaries''. This project aims to develop technologies and best management practices that will maximize the removal of PE mulch film from agricultural fields and make it an attractive feedstock for recyclers.
In April 2023, California Sea Grant was awarded $2.7 million in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds from the NOAA Sea Grant Marine Debris Challenge Competition and the Inflation Reduction Act to pursue the proposed project. This funding has allowed cross-sector collaboration with historically excluded communities to advance technology, practices, and transfer of knowledge that will improve agricultural plastics recycling, and reduce waste, costs and potential pollution in California and beyond.
Project partners were invited to present an informational briefing to Congressional staff, including CMSF’s Water Quality Program Manager- Plasticulture Division, Jazmine Mejia-Muñoz, along with CA Sea Grant, Flipping Iron, Andros Engineering, and ag industry representatives. Also present was the Head of NOAA Sea Grant, Senator Padillas Office staff, and other Congressional representatives. The presentation began with introductions and highlights of the project objectives, and then Flipping Iron and Andros Engineering presented their efforts and collaboration in plastic recycling. Both companies' plastic recycling programs revolve around the Andros “Mega-Binder“ retrieval machine, with the goal to maximize plastic yield and reduce contamination by improving best management practices (BMP) from plastic installation in the field to removal, transportation, and processing. Their joint efforts and funding from CA Sea Grant have supported research & development of a dry-wash line system to decrease soil contamination on plastic mulch to meet recycling requirements. The dry-wash line is a globally leading technology and the only dry system that allows PE mulch to become recyclable.
Field trials are currently ongoing with leading berry brands and small-scale local growers to understand the barriers, address them, and encourage implementation. This project will end in March of 2026. The next steps are to find a market for the post-processed mulch and close the loop. CMSF is currently applying with plastic manufacturers and agricultural stakeholders for grant opportunities to create a mulch that contains recycled PE mulch content. Thank you to our collaborative partners and special team of growers, field staff, university partners, industry members, and all other stakeholders for all the support and knowledge you have provided. We look forward to sharing results and advancing our joint efforts to address agricultural plastic pollution and marine debris from entering the MBNMS, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, and the Proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.