How to deal with nonrecyclable film plastics

PHOTO COURTESY OF RECYCLING AG PLASTICS PROJECT, CORNELL UNIVERSITY.
Open burning on a farm in Oregon; open burning is illegal in most states.

Petroleum-based plastics have gradually replaced glass, metal, concrete and ceramic on the farm because plastic costs less, increases production efficiency and is safer to work with. Increasingly, the most popular type of plastic found on the farm is low-density polyethylene (LDPE). This type of lightweight, thin plastic makes it convenient, and cost-effective, for producers to use on fields as mulch film and row covers, as well as in greenhouses, hoop houses or for short-term storage of farm materials.

PHOTO COURTESY OF PATRICK ATAGI.
Burn barrels on a farm in Oregon.

However, this convenience comes at a cost when the plastic outlives its usefulness: it is currently not recyclable and is difficult to get rid of in an ecological and/or cost-effective way.

Plastics often burned or buried on farm

While recycling these film plastics seems to be the logical solution to the problem, these lightweight plastics pose a unique problem. They are often made from many different polymers, making them difficult for municipalities to separate and handle. Plus, there is little infrastructure to deal with these types of plastics, either on a local or nationwide scale.

To add to this quandary, these plastics are often used directly on the ground, contaminating them with silage juices, pesticides, product residue from hay and haylage, moisture, vegetation, dirt and sand, and most recycling companies don’t want to deal with the mess and expense of cleaning these plastics, and therefore refuse to take them.

The plastics can be thrown away in a dumpster, but high tipping fees in many areas discourage farmers from doing this.

As a result, thousands of tons are burned or buried on farms across the country each year, both of which are not good long-term solutions. Burning is quickly becoming illegal in most states since it releases dioxins and other harmful pollutants into the air. Some producers will plow the plastic into the fields, but this is problematic since it can pose a risk to livestock, create mosquito breeding grounds and can release harmful chemicals into the soil when it breaks down.

A third solution farmers have employed is to pile them up in outbuildings or other areas of the farm. But, how long can a farming business stockpile an ever-growing mountain of plastics?

A solution on the horizon

It is a vexing problem that has kept Lois Levitan hard at work for over a decade. Levitan, senior extension associate and program leader for Cornell University’s Environmental Risk Analysis Program in the Department of Communication, says that the disposal solutions for farm plastics are not easy, but are possible.

David Cox, former RAPP field coordinator, loading a baler with plastic to be recycled. Part of the solution that will enable effective recycling is to compress the plastics by using a baler.
Agricultural plastics are often dirty, tangled and mixed with plant debris, and not conducive to recycling.

Her goal is to find solutions that will be as easy as possible for the agriculture industry, and make recycling and disposing of plastics part of the regular production practice. Her ultimate goal is to develop an infrastructure and markets to deal with lightweight film plastics on farms. In New York state, a solution is underway to provide a mobile compacting unit that will go from farm to farm to collect plastics and then transport it to the local transfer station.

Levitan, through Cornell’s Recycling Ag Plastics Project (a collaboration of Cornell University with agriculture producers and agencies in agriculture, environment, economic development, solid waste/recycling agencies, organizations and businesses), is also working on identifying potential markets to purchase and use the plastic film sheeting to make products such as fence posts, plastic lumber and garbage bags, or form them into products for agricultural uses such as bags and silage covers. There is even a promising project underway to transform these materials into sweet crude oil.

At the very least, the waste plastic should be collected at transfer stations and burned in controlled incinerators that do not emit dioxins, rather than being openly burned on farms, she says.

Getting the word out

Levitan has traveled extensively throughout the Northeast and other parts of the country to get the word out about best practices to deal with plastics on the farm. The most recent series of workshops led by Levitan in several Northeast states were sponsored by NEWMOA (Northeast Waste Management Officials Association), www.newmoa.org, through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Utilities Service, to provide training and technical assistance to promote recycling of agricultural plastics. “These workshops are not trying to discourage the use of plastics, because these new plastics have been helpful to the agriculture industry,” says Adam Wienert, NEWMOA’s project manager. “But these materials are very different, from, say, a water bottle. They vary in the types of resin—some have coatings; others have nylon woven into it. It is a vastly complicated material, that is, unfortunately, low value for recycling.”

Keep plastic clean enough to recycle

The market for recycling is particularly dire at the moment, but at some point it will turn around, says Wienert. Farms should be ready with recycle-ready plastics.

Producers should find a place on their farm to store the plastics, but first, the plastic needs to be clean enough to recycle. This, admittedly, is a tall order, say both Levitan and Wienert, since the plastics are bulky, used in less than pristine situations and are hard to clean.

The Recycling Ag Plastics Project has developed “best management practices” for horticulture to keep plastic clean enough to recycle.

For mulch and other thin films:

  1. Cut plastic into pieces of a size and weight that one person can handle.
  2. Brush or shake plastic to remove clumps of soil, stones and plant matter.
  3. Roll or fold dry film into bundles about the size of a large pillow (2 by 3 feet). (Don’t run a tractor over it to compact it!) Then, stuff into a bag of the same type of plastic.

For high tunnels and hoop house covers:

  1. Cut into sections to feed a nip roller (to flatten).
  2. Place into bundles (size will depend on thickness and flexibility of the film plastic).

For rigid plastic pots, trays, containers and drip tape:

  1. Stack pots and trays. Knock out loose soil and keep dry. Tie onto a pallet or compress with baler.
COURTESY OF RECYCLING AG PLASTICS PROJECT, CORNELL UNIVERSITY.
click here to view "BEST MANAGEMENT PRACTICE"

For chemical containers, triple rinse to clean. See www.arecycle.org for more information on chemical containers.

The plastic should then be stored under cover and kept as clean and dry as possible. Some storage solutions include stacking the bundles on pallets in a barn, shed, trailer or outside under a tarp.

Baling plastics

Saving the plastics until there is enough is important because recycling brokers are only interested large quantities, and the plastic must be baled in order to make it easier for transport.

“No broker will want to deal with it until it can get truckloads of this stuff. We’re talking about at least 40,000 pounds of it,” says Wienert.

In some areas, conservation districts are banding together to purchase balers that can create bales of 1,000 to 1,200 pounds each. A baler to do this kind of work costs about $35,000. In New York state, plans are underway to provide mobile compacting units that move from farm to farm to bale up the film plastics.

“For a large farm, [purchasing a baler] is not a significant capital investment,” says Wienert. “It can even be a profitable side business for a large farm to take materials from surrounding farms and bale it up.”

The collection of these types of materials and recycling could depend on state and county funding—or a forward-looking entrepreneur—to help start up these baling programs, as well as a market for the materials.

Get the recycling ball rolling

“Farmers at this point should be raising a ruckus,” says Wienert. “They need to let officials on the state and local levels know that they are ready to recycle, but they need a baler and an infrastructure to make [the plastic] ready for recycling,” he says.

If farm storage is a problem, producers need to convince the transfer station to store it until there is a market to process it, suggests Levitan.

Growers can also do their part to help generate a market for recycled products and help create a demand, says Levitan. “For this to work, there needs to be a market; [manufacturers of recycled products] have to know that products will be bought,” says Levitan. “Not only farmers, but institutions, government, businesses must be willing to buy things made from recycled materials.”

Don’t expect a profit

All your work in collecting and baling the materials and making a fuss to state and local officials for recycling facilities will not result in hard cash, but when recycling of these materials is underway, it will result in savings, says Wienert. “Producers won’t have to pay to dispose of it,” he says.

This kind of incentive is enough for farmers and growers to want to explore recycling options. According to a survey conducted by the Cornell Waste Management Institute of farmers in New York state, 85 percent of the farmers surveyed were willing to participate in a collection program if it became available, and most would be willing to store the used plastic on their farm until it was collected or would be willing to drop it off at a recycling station. A survey conducted by the University of Vermont Extension System had similar findings: the majority of farmers were willing to store and/or deliver the materials, as long as no fee was charged.

A baler costs about $35,000. This is a Big Foot Baler, demonstrated by Steve Mahoney, soil and water conservation district manager, Clinton County, N.Y.

“It will come down to the local level and some community organizing to get the baling, storing and recycling of these plastics going,” says Wienert. A concerted effort—or national effort—to deal with agricultural plastic films is still years away.

One ray of hope can be found in how other types of ag plastics are currently being addressed and recycled on a nationwide level. One large program is a concerted effort among pesticide manufacturers through The Pesticide Stewardship Alliance (http://tpsalliance.org), which has a nationwide collection of hard plastic pesticide containers or tubs underway. The American Society for Plasticulture (www.plasticulture.org) is also working on solutions to the agricultural plastics problem.

For the lightweight film ag plastics, however, it is still a waiting game. “There are little pockets of collections [of this type of plastic] in communities nationwide,” says Wienert. “The key is finding a market for it.”

State by state recycling information can be found at www.acrecycle.org/state.html.

The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.