Much of the 1 billion pounds of plastic ag discards every year could be recycled for cash
Agriculture churns through a phenomenal load of plastic each year. Ag plastic has traditionally been burned, buried or dumped—each option less environmentally palatable than the last. Recycling options for producers have been limited and costly. However, economics rules the day and plastic disposal options are expanding across agriculture.
In 2013, the U.S. generated roughly 14 million tons of plastic in containers and packaging, about 12 million tons as durable goods, such as appliances, and almost 7 million tons as nondurable goods, such as plates and cups, according to the Southern Waste Information eXchange (SWIX). Of the 33 million tons, 9% was recycled.
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In total, agriculture uses more than 1 billion pounds of plastic each year, says Gene Jones, president of SWIX, a non-profit that helps industry with waste issues. Within a few years, he believes ag plastic will move from waste to a resource and income generator.
“Plastic is a resource others can use,” Jones says. “Farmers can cut contamination and help their bottom line.”
Since 1998, Delta Plastics (DP) has recycled more than 1 billion pounds of product. The company recycles 150 million pounds of plastic waste annually from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri. The vast majority is polypipe, in addition to pond film, drip tape, mulch film and more.
DP has a proprietary method to clean dirty plastic. “We knew polypipe recycling wasn’t going to be fixed elsewhere,” says Scott Coleman, vice president of strategic development, DP. It’s tough for any company to line up ag plastic processing logistics because a system requires expertise in manufacturing, collection and recycling.
DP handles all three. Its collection system has more than 3,000 waypoints for drop-off, but farmers can also request a pickup. Recycled polypipe material goes into Revolution Bag, a DP company producing EPA-compliant trash can liners.
In business since the early 1990s, Agri-Plas recycled 15 million pounds of agricultural waste plastic in 2015. Farmers haul in loads of plastic, but Agri-Plas also uses mobile grinding trailers and can go directly to farms or distributors for large-quantity pickup.
“Back when we started, most farmers were burying or burning,” says Allen Jongsma, co-president of Agri-Plas. “We’re saving suppliers a lot of money so they don’t have to get rid of it. Plastic takes a lot of room and landfills don’t like to see it.”
Located in Oregon’s agriculture-heavy Willamette Valley, Agri-Plas handles agricultural plastic from California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The raw, recycled plastic is sold to manufacturers of nursery pots, baling twine, films, bed liners and more.
Plastic opportunity knocks. Farmers will see opportunities in just a few years to take plastic from waste to resource, according to Jones.
“Right now, the best farmers can do is get a recycler to take it off their hands. However, more companies are going to reach out for plastic and farmers will get paid for it,” he adds.