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    Recycling Goes Rural | Fall 2014 Out Here Magazine

    Program offers solution to plastic agricultural waste

    big plastic-wrapped cubes stacked in a field
    Out Here

    By Julie Thibodeaux

    Photography by iStock

    Plastic has become ever-present in our culture and dealing with the nonbiodegradable material when we're done with it has become a challenge — especially in the agricultural industry.

    Plastic is everywhere on a typical farm, with the cheaper lightweight material replacing ceramic, glass, and metal for packaging. Hay bales are often wrapped in it and even grain is stored in plastic bags instead of silos for convenience. Plastic has become essential for growers who use large plastic sheets for everything from heating the soil and suppressing weeds to roofing greenhouses.

    "Every time I blink, I find out about new uses of plastic in agriculture," says Lois Levitan, director of Cornell's Recycling Agricultural Plastics Program (RAPP), who has been studying the issue for 10 years.

    The agricultural industry generates only about 2 percent of all the plastic generated in the United States (some 30 tons annually), but it's a very visible 2 percent, she says.

    The plastic generated on farms from silage bags, mulch films, and pesticide containers quickly piles up, blows around, and is exposed to dirt and rain in addition to carrying product residue.

    "It's all over the place, it's dirty and difficult to handle. If you don't handle it right away it's a mess," Levitan says.

    Burning plastic, burying it, or paying someone to haul it away once were the only options for disposal. However, there's well-founded concern about the health hazards of burning or burying plastic, especially near food sources, due to the dangerous pollutants released. That, combined with the desire to save landfill space, has spurred community leaders to look for other means of dealing with plastic agricultural waste.

    That's why Levitan and a team of researchers at Cornell University were solicited by citizen activists in 2003 to help coordinate another solution — helping farmers recycle their plastic.

    As a result, Levitan has become one of the country's leading experts on agricultural recycling. Recycling agricultural plastic is challenging, she says, for several reasons:

    • It's difficult to keep clean and stored.
    • Many items are made of a mixture of plastics, which makes finding a market for them more difficult.
    • Many industrial plastics are black, making it challenging for manufacturers to turn it into other marketable products.
    • Most farms are a good distance away from urban centers where recycling usually occurs.
    rows of crops with mulching plastic around them
    Mulch films for crops are among the farm plastics that are now being recycled as part of a growing industry.

    ON THE RISE

    The good news is that agricultural plastic recycling is a growing industry.

    More companies are finding ways to turn used agricultural plastic into other products such as garbage bags, sidewalk pavers, and plastic lumber. Manufacturers are seeking new sources to replace expensive virgin material, and investors are looking at locating recycling facilities in farming communities.

    Out of the 35,000 farms in New York state, about 8 percent are now recycling thanks to Cornell's efforts, Levitan estimates. "It's not anywhere near where we want to be, by any means," she says. And while her focus is in New York, the principles of their program can be applied anywhere in the United States, Levitan says. Indeed, she's fielded questions from agencies and businesses from about two dozen states that are looking into agricultural recycling.

    Those interested in starting an agricultural recycling program should follow Levitan's guidelines:

    • Identify an organizer. You need an advocate who can coordinate the farming community's recycling program. Contact your local extension office. Extension agents are frequently willing to help start a program.
    • Take care of your plastic. Adopt a practice of keeping discarded plastics as neat, dry, clean, and compacted as possible. Store it in a dry corner of a barn or outdoors on a pallet off the ground. Keep grit and dirt off it. Squeeze the air out with weight, such as a rock, for compaction. This will make it more marketable and manageable.
    • Locate a group collection site. This needs to be a central location for participants, with enough room to store the material collected and equipment needed, such as a portable baler.
    • Recruit other farmers. You'll need to amass enough recyclables to get companies interested in purchasing the plastic. A good goal to shoot for is about 40,000 pounds of plastic per truckload.
    • Devise a system for collection. This will be determined by logistics and what works best for the participants. In some cases, farmers bring their plastics to a central location. In other communities, someone retrieves the items.
    • Identify purchasers of the plastic. Today, there's a market for almost every type of agricultural plastic and more are willing to accept less-than-perfect material. Check the website PlasticsMarkets.org for leads.
    • Seek out subsidies. The monetary value of agricultural recyclables is typically less than the full cost of collection, which includes recruitment, training, transportation, compaction, etc. Agencies or municipalities interested in conserving landfill space or reducing pollution may be able to offset costs of the program.
    • Environmental sustainability is important to Tractor Supply, and we applaud others who feel the same way. That's why we're regularly featuring some of our customers and friends who are good stewards of the land. For more information on our Stewardship Program, click on "Environmental Sustainability" at the bottom of our TractorSupply.com home page.

      Take advantage of resources. Check out RAPP's web page at environmentalrisk.cornell.edu/ and Facebook. If you have questions, contact the agency at AgPlasticsRecycling@Cornell.edu.
    • Be patient. While the effort to recycle may seem daunting, it's going to help you, the environment, and the community in the long run.

    "Farmers are not going to get rich from recycling," Levitan says.

    However, she says, it will eliminate the amount of waste you must pay to haul it away; it will quickly become a way of life; and you'll impress your kids and grandkids.

    Julie Thibodeaux is a Texas writer who specializes in sustainability and the environment.

     

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