Always Ask Questions

To turn gardening greener, we all need to start joining up the dots. Let’s make a start by getting dumbfounded manufacturers falling off their seats.

By John Walker. Published in Kitchen Garden, December 2010.

Although I don’t normally make a habit of getting folk to fall off their seats, I’m developing rather a taste for it, if not an impish craving. I know I’ve scored a real ‘hit’ when the prelude to the seat-dislodging moment is that delectable few seconds of stunned silence, often garnished with bewilderment. So what powers do I possess to conjure up these illuminating moments? Why, nothing more earth-shattering than the nous to ask questions – and to remember to keep on asking them.

They’re powerful things, questions. Asking them sometimes brings discomfort and disbelief – for both the questioner and the questioned – but they can also enlighten and inform, broaden minds and alter behaviour. Questions can be awkward, funny, complicated, difficult, interesting, loaded, boring, searching, double-edged, revealing, spiked – I could go on – but by far the most effective are the simple, straightforward ones, which offer their recipient zero wriggle-room.

Polytunnels give all gardeners a growing advantage but we should not shy away from asking about how and where they have been made, by who, and what we could do with them when they come to the end of their life.

Polytunnels give us a growing advantage, but like all other gardening gear, we need to be much more inquisitive about what happens to the different materials when they finally wear out.

A recent and overwhelmingly positive experience with a manufacturer of top-quality garden polytunnels was marred only by the discovery that this firm had forgotten to ask itself a fundamental and important question. That I was “the first person to ask that” reveals a lot about how little thought some makers of gardening materials and equipment give over to what eventually happens to the things they sell us – and how disconnected so much of the gardening industry still is from a truly holistic approach to more ecologically sustainable living and gardening.

It all started so well. I used the firm’s website to request a paper copy of their catalogue (you can’t mull over getting a new polytunnel unless you’ve a cuppa to hand and there’s dirt under your fingernails), and it arrived promptly the next day. It was all good, info-packed and impressive stuff, and when I was ready I could play around online with different dimensions (and prices) to my heart’s content. A week or so later a friendly call from the tunnel maker, to see if I had any questions (more soft than hard sell), had me mentally awarding them top marks for follow-up customer service.

And yes, I did have a very straightforward question, one which, I explained, hadn’t been answered either by their catalogue or their excellent website. “When it comes to the end of its life, can the plastic cover be recycled?” Cue the delicious momentary silence and the gentle creak of a wobbling chair. “Err… I don’t know. I don’t think anyone has ever asked before – do you mind holding on while I ask a colleague?” I rank falling-off-chair moments by how long it takes for the emergency office confab to rustle up an answer. This one scored pretty high.

“They’re powerful things, questions. They can enlighten and inform, broaden minds and alter behaviour”

The answer was a kind of ‘yes’. With a little coaxing from me, the tunnel maker suggested that the best way to recycle a tired cover would be through one of the large plastics recycling banks usually found in car parks. Sensing they were teetering on their chair edges, I dealt a final, irresistible blow. “Have you thought about putting some recycling information in your catalogue?” Wham! “Well, I’ll certainly pass your suggestion on…” came the buttock-smarting reply. I was as taken aback to find they’d clearly not considered this aspect of the ‘afterlife’ of their polytunnels as they were to be asked about it. Questions, eh?

One question often leads to another. Thinking five to ten years ahead (when the plastic cover will be on its way out), my next question was to my local authority’s recycling department. “Can the old plastic cover from a garden polytunnel be recycled?” This answer, after an initial “I’ll just check”, was a more solid ‘yes’, but I was advised that it would be best to put it (clean, dry and folded) in a car-park plastics bank, or take it to the local recycling centre (that’s ‘tip’ to the unbothered chuck-it-alls), rather than try to get it into a roadside collection box. Although bereft of both stunned silence and any prospect of that craved falling-off-chair moment, I was at least reassured that when I’m done with it, a used polytunnel cover (essentially a dollop of refined oil) will at least have a good chance of going on to be turned into something else.

It's not just home gardeners who swell landfill. This truck is collecting the 'waste' thrown out by the great and the good of the media gardening world during the build-up to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Even professional gardeners aren’t immune to the lure of landfill. This waste is being collected during the building of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (and yes, that’s turf being tipped into the truck).

I’m often told I must live a tortured, fretful life, worrying about every last detail, constantly questioning where something has come from, what it’s made of, who made it and where, how it got here and – perhaps the most important question of all – what’ll happen to it when it’s no longer up to the job. That could well be true, but I blame my occasional restless nights squarely on being an earth-friendly organic gardener. We are, after all, a rare breed: folk who tend toward a seemingly irrational despair at the very thought of chucking stuff out, instead always finding another use for it, and who are equally and increasingly wary and searching when acquiring new gardening stuff. Standing in the yard at my ‘recycling’ centre, with perfectly good gardening stuff flying into waiting skips headed for landfill, I feel I’m in truly alien territory.

If we’re to stand any chance of evolving into the greener and more ‘sustainable’ human society we keep hearing so much about, one which is ‘green’ from our gardens upwards, where we use limited natural resources with care and respect, we all need to start doing a lot more joined-up thinking, not to mention much more joined-up gardening. The big problem at present, from which the gardening world isn’t immune, is that there are still far too many rather vital dots in desperate need of being joined up – as my polytunnel experience showed.

Did my clearly unexpected question make a difference? So far, it seems not; the polytunnel firm I had falling off its chair still carries no advice, at the time of writing, on its website (nor I assume in its paper catalogue) about recycling old tunnel covers. I can only wonder as to why; perhaps my suggestion was never passed on, or perhaps it was and just got ignored. Or maybe the reason is that it was only a single, disconcerting question lost under an incoming tidal wave of customer orders.

Polytunnels can help us to grow more food and increase our self-reliance, but to join up the ecological dots, we need manufacturers to help us when the time comes to renew their plastic covers.

But what if they started to receive dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of questions about whether their polytunnel covers could be recycled – would that make a difference? Would the effort be mustered to add some recycling advice to their otherwise splendid information packs? Might an avalanche of straightforward questions from us ‘end users’ bring about far less lazy cradle-to-grave thinking among manufacturers, and far more cradle-to-cradle farsightedness? Could we see manufacturers thinking more responsibly about the materials they use, so that recycling becomes second nature – an integral part of the deal when we buy more or less anything? Will we one day be cladding our polytunnels with covers actually made from pre-loved plastic, which the original supplier will happily take back when it comes to the end of its life with us?

We don’t, of course, need to restrict ourselves to polytunnel covers. There are plenty of other areas where we, as eco-savvy gardeners, can have those who supply us with our gardening gear slipping from their seats in bewildered silence. All we need to do is keep firing simple, straightforward questions. But be warned – it can become addictive.

So what are you waiting for? Go ask.

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