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Plastics and permaculture

 
Tyler Ludens
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Plastics are yucky, some people seem to think they are evil and possibly if not definitely not permaculturish.  Cars are made of plastic, most of us drive cars.  Are cars evil?  (yes? no? a little?  mostly?)  Are there any uses of plastic that can be justified in permaculture?  For instance if they are used in rainwater harvesting or composting toilets or wormbins?  Are they evil if used to line ponds?  Is it more, or less, evil to line a pond with plastic than to drive a car to the store to buy groceries?

I'm using plastic right now (in my computer).  My house has (unfortunately) a lot of plastic in it.  Is it ok to use plastic if we aren't practicing permaculture, but not ok to use plastic in permaculture endeavors?

What replacements for plastic can we devise?  If no replacement, should we do without that thing?
 
                              
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Hi Ludi,

I was being a bit facetious about the evilness of plastic. For me it's a material, sometimes very useful. It's how we use it that's the problem, rather than there being inherent evilness in the material.

I see a big difference between driving my car to get groceries, and choosing to line a pond with plastic instead of other options. I am dependent on my car for survival (sad but true), but I have more choices about building ponds. The reverse may be true for someone else (they can bike to the food store, but have no other way of building a pond).

I don't think it's about absolutes. It's about context. I would say that we overuse plastic, to the massive detriment of the enivornment. And I don't see alot of discussion about this in permie circles.

My point in the other thread was, if it's so difficult to build a pond without using plastic, is building a pond the right thing to do? What I mean about sustainablility isn't that our whole lives have to be sustainable, but that when we design using pc principles and tools, shouldn't we be looking at things like the lifetime of the material, and what we will do with it when it's worn out? There shouldn't be any waste in a good pc design, so what happens to the plastic liner in 20 years or whenever and it needs to be replaced? I can see the case for using one, if it helps establish a food growing system quickly and there is thought about the plastic's end of life.

Are we willing to store it on our land indefinitely? Are we willing to bury it on our land? If we do, how much other plastic/toxic materials have been buried there and what happens after we die? Are we ok with burying it in someone else's backyard (the dump)? etc.

One plastic pond liner can seem such a small thing given the amount of plastic floating round in the Pacific now, but it's something about us practicing good sustainable design wherever we can, so that good practice becomes the norm.
 
                              
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With regards to the pond, if it wasn't possible to gley I would look at other options such as a series of small ponds from old baths etc. There is alot of plastic in the waste stream that can be used without creating new plastic.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I'll be quite happy if I last another 20 years!  But I don't want to leave too big a mess for folks to clean up.

Your points are all very well taken.  I guess, for me, it's odd that some things get the "hey, that's not permie!" and others don't.  People seem ok with using lots of plastic in building various kinds of houses (underground houses and living-roof houses specifically) and nobody says "hey, that's not permie!"  Will these plastics last more than 20 years?



 
                              
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I agree about buildings, having been involved in a building project recently I've thought alot about that. Is it better to build a strawbale house in a damp climate (where they've not been used traditionally) and use plastic liners, or use different materials. We built houses for a long time without plastic, and we could do it again if we had to. We could choose to now if we wanted Bit hard to have electricity without plastic now, so again, I'm not absolutist about this (but don't get me started about roof gardens ).

For me it's not whether plastic gets used or not that determines its 'permieness', it's the thought and process that goes into the decision. I think we could be extending ourselves futher in this than we are currently (putting more thought into those aspects of design).
 
Tyler Ludens
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pebble wrote:
With regards to the pond, if it wasn't possible to gley I would look at other options such as a series of small ponds from old baths etc.


I'm not sure what can be used or how to find these items. 

The implication seems to be people (me?) aren't thinking enough about whether something is sustainable or not.  If I chose to only do what was sustainable I would not be alive right now.  I think about this stuff a lot.  A lot.

 
                              
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I've never made a natural pond before, but there's been a few discussions on the PRI and UK forums that have been very interesting. I think ponds are a whole design process in themselves: where they go, how they're built, what the rest of the land is like, how many trees, flooding, rainfall etc. I'd start by looking at where I live and how water pools in the area naturally (observe!), and then talk with locals who've built ponds (permie and otherwise).

Where I live there are various ways to get stuff like old baths and big containers: garage sales, freecycle, recycle centres, waste exchanges, house/building demolition sites etc. Do you have those things where you live?
 
Tyler Ludens
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I'm not in a position to drive around to garage sales, etc.  

Natural ponds here are all dry right now and have been for about a year.

Maybe I'll just plant some more cactus! 
 
                              
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Oh right, just seen where you live!

To be honest, I live in a dry climate where the land is being turned into a desert by human action, so I wouldn't consider building a pond unless there was a really obvious piece of land crying out for that (eg it had been a wetland before they screwed the water table, or there was fairly ideal ground). I'd probably plan around it in the future, but would focus on getting trees established first (although I would talk with pond builders about the chicken and egg situation there). I'd bring in containers for water though, as soon as I could.

Many of the suggestions I made about secondhand goods can be done via the internet or phone. But it's not everyone's cup of tea

 
Tyler Ludens
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pebble wrote:
I'd probably plan around it in the future, but would focus on getting trees established first



  There are plenty of established trees, which are currently dying from the drought! 
 
                              
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I was meaning where I am, where bare hills are considered the epitome of beauty 

Dead trees = hugelkulture

Ok, if there is such a bad drought that many trees are dying, and if putting in a pond is going to save those trees, esp in the short term, then use the plastic. Don't much around. That's serious shit and that's what we should be using plastic for if we're going to use it at all.
 
Hugh Hawk
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Agree with the comments about house building.  Here in Australia we have a bill going through parliament about giving extra compensation to firefighters because the statistics show their health declines from being above average when they start the job, to significantly unhealthier than average.  This is thought to be due to the nasty stuff that modern building materials emit when they combust.  You'd think they would pass some laws to make this stuff more benign, but no...

Also, some plastics are nastier than others.  PVC (vinyl) for example, can contain lots of plasticiser, including phthalate, which can cause cancers, birth defects, etc.  Many plastics used to contain bisphenol A, which has now been banned in some places.

Polyethylene seems to be one of the best of the plastics, non-toxic as far as I am aware, but still takes a long time to break down, except under UV.  UV stabilizer chemicals could be a source of toxicity.

For me I think a limited use of plastics is OK if the material will not emit toxicity and can be recycled at the end of its useful life, or left to decay without any toxicity.  As they are produced from gas, availability will decline in future as gas becomes less available, unless suitable alternative feedstocks can be produced in abundance.
 
Benjamin Burchall
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This topic is a sticky wicket for me. I'd prefer to use as little petroleum as possible because of what petro use is doing to our environment and health. That said, I recognize that the best way to dramatically reduce that damage is to eliminate oil as a feed stock for fuel since the whopping majority of it is used for fuel. Another thing I'm considering is will my use of oil in permaculture system (in this case in the form of plastics) end up meaning a substantial reduction in my overall use of oil.

Our modern lives are inextricably tied to petroleum. Without it there are no computers or no safe electricity. I really don't care to live without those wonderful inventions. There are a lot of goods that contain plastic that don't have to, but they would loose the benefits of plastics. Plastics allow us to have things that are flexible, but lightweight or very rigid, but lightweight and able to absorb impact energy. We would do well to ramp up research into creating other more environmentally friendly materials that get the job done especially since we have already hit peak oil...if we want to continue to have modern creature comforts. However, what if we get off off petroleum as fuel, I wonder how long we'd still have oil to make plastics. Probably a much longer time. Some products though should probably not be made with plastic at all.

It's quite a mess we're in with oil.
 
Vova Wasabi
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It feels awkward using plastics in permaculture because in essence, a permaculture system can reproduce itself after some time. Chances are you will not be able to reproduce the things that use plastic, and plastic products like pond liner. Therefore these things are not renewable and not sustainable. It's a shortcut to use plastic liner or a plastic rainwater tank, but there's no real lesson learned, like how to leakproof a pond or make a wooden tank, and next time you might need a shortcut, it won't be available.

Another thing to consider is scavenging plastic versus paying for it. Having no good way to dispose of it, scavenging at least makes it useful in the goal of permaculture, and paying for it supports unsustainable production practices.
 
John Polk
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Possibly the most useful plastic item (besides the insulation on your electric wires) in use on the farmstead is the 5 gallon plastic bucket.  You would be hard pressed to find a homestead without at least one.  A multi-function tool!

Going to Home Depot and buying one, however, could be considered evil, since they are thrown away by the millions.  Most fast-food joints get supplies (mayo, pickles, tartar sauce, etc) in them, and just toss them when empty.  Many/most managers will gladly let you take them (good luck finding the lids without dumpster-diving)!

As far as pond liners go, what's wrong with plaster?  All natural earth elements.
 
Hugh Hawk
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Do ponds develop their own liner eventually with sedimentary deposition?  I wonder if a biodegradable plastic could be used to start the pond that will eventually break down when it is no longer needed.
 
John Polk
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There was quite a discussion here a few months ago about using "gley" to seal ponds.
It is primarily a system of putting clays and vegetable matter and having a bunch of hogs compacting it.  As the veg matter breaks down, it forms a water-tight seal.  I doubt if it would work in sandy soils.

Search "gley" and "pond" and you should find the thread.
 
Tyler Ludens
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John Polk wrote:


As far as pond liners go, what's wrong with plaster?  All natural earth elements.



Not sure exactly what you mean by "plaster."  Plaster is not strong enough to line a pond.  Do you mean concrete?  Darn expensive. And its production is not sustainable either. 

The "gley" thread is not especially helpful, in my opinion.  Someone tried the technique (I think it was Rob) but was not particularly successful. 

I can't have pigs, so the pig method won't help me. 
 
Tyler Ludens
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Hugh H. wrote:
Do ponds develop their own liner eventually with sedimentary deposition?  I wonder if a biodegradable plastic could be used to start the pond that will eventually break down when it is no longer needed.


I was reading a lot about liners and somewhere someone mentioned the long-term water-tightness of plastic-lined ponds might be due to the anaerobic layer beneath them rather than to the long-term puncture-free liner.  A non-toxic biodegradable material might be a good idea to use, if it lasted long enough to produce the anaerobic layer.

 
Doug Owen
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I do not think the issue is plastic itself.  If the earth had 100 million people on it and we all acted super responsible with what we extract, produce and use, then plastic usage would be a minor point. 

I use plastics in limited but essential means.  Biodegradables for bags, etc.  I recently found 2 pallets of roofing liner (same as EDPM pond liner) for free as they ripped it from a building.  You can bet I will use that in my pond next year.

As far as pond development goes...having the right soil is important and prepping the soil is critical.  Once you have excavated you will need to compact the soil mercilessly.  Add a touch of water, compact; scarify, add a touch of water and compact mercilessly, repeat repeat repeat.  At this point over a few years the pond will begin to solidify at the base.  Your point of failure will be the 2000 pound moose puncturing your compacted soil or a tree/shrub whose roots penetrate the base.  Now if you started 12" deeper, lay the pond liner down, then add back the 12" of soil and at each step compact, you have the makings of an extremely good pond.

Regards, Doug
 
                              
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I'm fairly sure there is no such thing as biodegradable plastic. The oil based ones certainly aren't (they just break down into microscopic pieces, and only on exposure to UV light), and the corn-starch ones are made from a material that breaks down, but doesn't easily once it's been turned into plastic. Also I think they can't be recycled.

Fungi could probably deal with all that, but I think they'll have their work cut out for them with all the oil and pesticides  and heavy metals
 
Benjamin Burchall
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pebble wrote:
I'm fairly sure there is no such thing as biodegradable plastic.


Biodegradable plastics made from starch have been around for some time now. There has been research in making plastics from mushrooms as well.
 
                              
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Yes, I know we can make plastics from plants. I'm just not sure they fit the definition of 'biodegradable' that I use. There are hard cornstarch containers that when wet go soft, and these compost fine. But I've not seen a 'plastic' bag or pottle that biodegrades naturally and easily.
 
Benjamin Burchall
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pebble wrote:
Yes, I know we can make plastics from plants. I'm just not sure they fit the definition of 'biodegradable' that I use. There are hard cornstarch containers that when wet go soft, and these compost fine. But I've not seen a 'plastic' bag or pottle that biodegrades naturally and easily.


OK 
 
Tyler Ludens
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I have also read that some so-called biodegradable plastics only degrade to smaller particles which are still a problem in the world, as regular plastics can also break down when exposed to UV, but they only become smaller particles which end up choking tiny lifeforms to death.  This might be one of the reasons the oceans are dying.   There may be some "plastic-like" materials made from plants which are truly biodegradable, that is they eventually become carbon and oxygen or similar harmless substances.

By "plastic" I mean a long-chain molecule material made from petro-chemicals.  By "biodegradable" I mean degrades to carbon and oxygen or similar harmless substances in a relatively short period of time (not centuries or millennia).  

 
Brenda Groth
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when I think about plastic I think about medical uses of it..esp the tubing for delivering fluids..and the hospital machines, etc..where would modern medicine be without  plastics..and would we have computers, t v's, etc..

sure they used to make cars and planes without plastics but now they are very extensively used..

with peak oil and such, there may be a day that plastic medical tubing won't be available..hope they find a good substitute..
 
                              
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Yes, I think the companies that make oil plastics that fall apart with UV light aren't allowed to use the term 'biodegradable' (they use a different word that sounds similar).

I asked someone who works in the industry: in NZ at least there is no such thing as a bioplastic that will break down in a home compost or on the side of the road. There are bioplastics that will break down in an industrial composter, but we don't have many of those.

There are other bioplastics that don't break down, but can be recycled. We don't have those here yet.

The 'oxo-degradable' plastics (oil based), are best sent to the landfill. They only break down into smaller pieces with UV light and this may be a problem for the environment. As such they're not much  better than ordinary plastics that have to go to the landfill (neither biodegrade).
 
                              
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I'm sure we could find substitutes for many plastics (oil). If they can make bridge girders from soy, I'm sure they can make hospital gear and computers from plants. But we're still talking about massive industrial processes, that themselves need oil to function and are generally polluting. That's why I like to think about plastic use within permaculture. If we're not going to buy in compost as a design principle, why are we buying in pondliners?

One of the biggies for me is how plastics put xeno-estrogens into the environment. This is a major issue for human health, and the health of the rest of the planet. Of course not all plastics are the same, and it depends on how they're used. Plus we don't have particularly good information on many plastics.
 
Tyler Ludens
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pebble wrote:
If we're not going to buy in compost as a design principle, why are we buying in pondliners?


Why pick on the pondliner, specifically?  Why not pick on a few other things that aren't sustainable, like commuting to jobs (in a plastic car, over asphalt roads), having babies (diapers, plastic toys, and did I mention there are already about 7 billion humans these days?), etc etc etc....

 
                              
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Pondliners because that's what we were talking about when this came up. I also liked what was said earlier about how we need to incease the skills around building ponds without plastic/oil so that we have those skills well developped by the time we don't have cheap oil/plastic anymore. We are losing alot of skills that we will need in the not too distant future.

But yes, why not apply it to our whole lives? If I could buy a computer with no plastic in it, I would. I don't have children just because that's how it turned out but it's a valid choice to not have kids because of the impact on the planet. It's not that hard where I live to raise kids with cloth nappies.

I would say however that that's a bit different than permaculture design. Most people don't apply pc design to their whole lives even where they're making ethical decisions across their whole lives. There's something more specific: if one applies pc design to a piece of land, that generally excludes lots of human issues (like commuting), it seems that using plastic within the pc design itself (rather than the whole world) means looking at plastic in certain ways in the same way we would look at other material choices.

 
Doug Owen
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Biodegradable is here and works.  However...many caveat's to the implementation:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodegradable_plastic

Note the need for professionally managed composting.  Also note that once composted the remaining by-products can be managed by micro-organisms.

H Ludi Tyler is in a tough situation.  S/he needs a good solution to retain water during a mega drought and needs it immediately.  If and when a good rain comes it would be best to be prepared for it.  For now I would be looking at liners as effective short term solutions while we permies develop or create better long term solutions.

I know next year I will be building 2 ponds.  One I will be trying the Seth compaction method he describes in a video.  On the other I will be using a recycled pond liner I got from a roofing contractor that strips them off commercial re-roofing jobs.  The second pond will be temporary and the liner is already here so why not take advantage of it?  The only other usage would be a underground house or veggie cellar or the dump.
 
Benjamin Burchall
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DougOwen wrote:
H Ludi Tyler is in a tough situation.  S/he needs a good solution to retain water during a mega drought and needs it immediately.  If and when a good rain comes it would be best to be prepared for it.  For now I would be looking at liners as effective short term solutions while we permies develop or create better long term solutions.


For the long term, I think rain barrels or other enclosed water storage would be good. Since she's noticing that it's so hot for so long that the ponds where she is are drying up, it makes no sense to dig one. And, as I know from living in a dry climate, her evaporation rates are quite high compared to a climate with higher humidity or lower temperatures. So, it's probably better to make sure that water storage is not uncovered.

If the trees are dying, she'll probably have to let the tree go and focus on smaller edible vegetation grown together in an easily controllable area. Deep mulch combined with some shading over the garden (shade cloths maybe) may be enough to reduce soil moisture evaporation and plant transpiration and lower temperatures for the plants. The shading would need to be larger than the garden to allow more cooled air to flow over the plants - perhaps 30-50% larger. I imagine the garden would need a good soaking to fully recharge soil moisture.

What do you think about these suggestion H Ludi?
 
                              
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"Biodegradable is here and works. "

It depends on what you mean by works If someone is in a shop and says "I'd prefer to not have my goods packed in a plastic bag", and the shop attendant says "oh don't worry, there are biodegradable plastic bags", then that's a problem because it gives false information and a very false sense of environmental security. Plus it puts another unnecessary plastic bag into the waste stream.

That's often the problem with technology - the difference between intended use and real world use (although the cynic in me says that the people pushing bioplastics don't really care. There is ALOT of money to be made from bioplastics).


 
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