Getting rid of the plastics used to wrap bales and store silage continues to be a major headache for hay and forage growers. For most, the options are expensive – hauling the material to local landfills – or not environmentally sound – burning or burying the plastics on farms.

FFA students at Western Dubuque High School in Epworth, IA, are doing their part to help local farmers deal with waste plastics by setting up a community collection program.

A 2012 burn ban in northeastern Iowa triggered the project. “We got some calls from farmers looking for ideas on what could be done,” says Matt Lansing, the school’s ag education teacher and FFA advisor. “When the kids got back to school in the fall, we did some brainstorming sessions. They started looking at all the different products on farms that aren’t always disposed of properly, including used oil filters, waste oil, wet cell batteries and paper feed sacks.”

During the school year, the chapter launched a free, rural recycling program, then sold the collected materials, including 38,000 lbs of waste plastics, to a variety of recycling companies. The plastics were delivered to a company in Kansas City, MO, then processed and shipped to other companies making products like non-concrete sidewalks out of the recycled materials.

This year, the FFA’ers are zeroing in on waste plastics. One goal is to buy a plastic baler that can be mounted on a trailer and moved to locations where waste materials have been collected and stored.

“The logistics are the tough part of this,” says Lansing. “You have to make things as easy as possible for farmers to take part. They’ll be more likely to drop off the plastic if there’s a collection point close to their farms. That’s where having the baler mounted on a trailer comes in. As for the baler itself, the goal is to get the plastic compressed enough so that it’s economical for shipping it to the processor. It’s all about how many pounds you can get on a semi-trailer.”

He figures the baler and trailer will cost around $15,000. Along with a grant from National FFA, the chapter recently received a $5,000 grant from Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative based in LaFarge, WI. Other local businesses are also showing an interest.

“There are just so many farms using plastic in a variety of ways,” says Joe Klein, regional dairy pool manager for Organic Valley. “And handling the waste is getting to be more and more of a problem all the time. It just makes sense to see if we can’t find some better uses for this stuff instead of just burning or burying it. We’d love to see this become a model for other regions of the country.”

Lansing is confident the concept will eventually take hold for more farmers. “We’re talking about changing a mindset and that takes time,” he says. “But it will eventually happen. As we go forward, more landfills aren’t going to take this stuff, and environmental agencies are already putting more restrictions on how you can dispose of it. We feel that if we teach recycling, environmental impact and sustainability now, it will eventually become a choice or a lifestyle.”

For a short video clip of how plastics are compressed into bales for shipping to a recycler, view “Recycling Ag Plastics.”