Polyethylene mulch is traditionally used in the production of some fruits and vegetables to maintain soil moisture and increase soil temperature, control weeds, improve crop quality, and increase yield (Emmert, 1957). In the United States, 1 billion pounds of plastic are used every year in the production of crops (Fessenden, 2015). It is estimated that in vegetable production alone, U.S. farmers are using about 143,300 tons of PE mulch per year (Shogren and Hochmuth, 2004).
Recycling options for PE mulch after using it are limited because it gets contaminated with soil and vegetation, as well as chemicals such as pesticides and fungicides during the cropping season, and many recycling facilities will not accept it. Also, transportation of used plastic to recycling facilities can be challenging, and the recycling facilities that can and will accept it are limited in their capacity to process it (Moore and Wszelaki, 2016). Given the limited recycling opportunities, farmers resort to disposing of PE mulch at landfills or other even less desirable disposal methods (e.g., burning). At the end of season, farmers remove PE mulch and dispose of it in landfills, stockpile it on the farm, or burn it on site (Kasirajan and Ngouajio, 2012). Regardless of the benefits associated with the use of PE mulch in fruit and vegetable production, the use of this mulch is not considered environmentally sustainable because the ways in which farmers dispose of PE mulch often contribute to soil and air pollution. For example, when burned on site, PE mulches release carcinogenic substances that could negatively affect human health (Valavanidis et al., 2008).
Additionally, the use of PE mulch is not considered environmentally sustainable because at the end of the season, it is difficult to completely remove this mulch, and the mulch fragments left behind contribute to soil plastic pollution in the long-term. Soil plastic pollution could negatively affect soil productivity and therefore farm profitability (Liu et al., 2014).
Plastic BDMs provide similar benefits to PE mulch, but they are considered more sustainable than PE mulch (Goldberger et al., 2019). At the end of the season, BDMs do not have be removed, but rather they can be tilled into the soil or composted on-site, since they are designed to decompose in soil conditions into water, carbon dioxide, and microbial biomass (Hayes and Flury, 2018). The use of BDM has the potential not only to reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with the use of PE mulch but also to reduce labor associated with PE mulch removal and disposal activities. The potential labor savings from the use of BDMs are important in farmers’ assessment of the economic feasibility of transitioning from PE mulch to BDM because BDM is more expensive than PE mulch (Velandia et al., 2019).
There are only two studies exploring the use of BDM and PE mulch among U.S. fruit and vegetable growers (Goldberger et al., 2013, 2019). Using a qualitative approach, Goldberger et al. (2013) explored the use of plastic mulch among fruit and vegetable growers in Tennessee, Washington, and Texas, and the perceived bridges and barriers to BDM adoption among these growers. Goldberger et al. (2019) evaluate regional differences in producers’ opinions about PE mulch and BDM. None of these studies evaluate the differences in the characteristics of those farmers who have used BDM and those who have mainly used PE mulch for the production of fruit and vegetables. Only one study has explored the influence of BDM prices in fruit and vegetable growers’ willingness to use this type of mulch (Scaringelli et al., 2016).
Using data from a survey of Tennessee fruit and vegetable growers, we evaluated: 1) the use of PE mulch among Tennessee fruit and vegetable growers and their use of or interest in using BDM; 2) the differences in the characteristics of those who had used BDM and those who have used PE mulch only for the production of fruit and vegetables; and 3) Tennessee fruit and vegetable growers willingness to use BDM at various price levels.
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