There was a day not too many years ago when virtually all fermented forage in the Midwest was stored in permanent, upright silos. These days, a significant percentage is stored either under or within agricultural plastic.
The popularity of bunker silos and piles, silo bags, and baleage has lowered the production cost of forage on thousands of farms. It has also contributed to what is now estimated to be 1 billion pounds of used agricultural plastic that is generated annually in the United States. Only about 10 percent of that plastic is thought to be recycled while the rest is either landfilled, stockpiled, or burned, which is illegal in many states.
Given the density of dairy farms in Wisconsin, the Badger State generates more than its fair share of agricultural plastics. Past efforts to collect and recycle the farm plastic have largely failed for a variety of reasons; one of the primary ones has been the dirt and plant material that comes along with the plastic. That barrier now looks to be broken.
A successful kickoff
Mark Mayer, an extension agricultural agent in Green County, Wis., was one of the people who had been looking for an answer to the agricultural plastics dilemma when he finally got a line on Revolution Plastics through its Arkansas-based parent company, Delta Plastics. He was put in touch with Price Murphy, director of operations for Revolution Plastics and a 22-year veteran of the plastics industry.
In 2014, a pilot program for collecting agricultural plastics was successfully executed in Green and surrounding counties. Farms were provided a dumpster at no charge to store their used plastic. When full, the dumpsters were picked up by Revolution Plastics and taken to a nearby baling facility. From there, the compressed plastic was trucked to Arkansas for manufacturing into trash bag liners that contain up to 94 percent recycled resin. It’s all made possible by a patented process that allows the company to shred and wash the used plastic.
“The trash can liner business is booming,” Murphy said during a county forage council meeting in Manawa, Wis. “Just recently we also expanded our operations with a Texas-based manufacturing facility that makes construction and other films, and we feel recycled agricultural plastics can fit into that operation’s product lines as well.”
After their experience with the Green County pilot project, Murphy said the company began to expand its Wisconsin collection program. In 2016, the company had 2,400 dumpsters placed on farms in the southern and eastern regions of the state. In 2017, they plan to expand north. “By the end of this year, we should have up to 5,000 dumpsters in Wisconsin and the surrounding area,” Murphy estimated. The company’s fleet of trucks is currently collecting over 1 million pounds of Wisconsin-used agricultural plastic every month and continues to grow.
“We try to make this as easy as possible for the farmers,” Murphy explained. “All that we ask is that only approved plastic goes into the dumpsters and that the dumpsters are placed in an area that is accessible for our collection trucks.” He said that putting items such as tires and fence posts into the dumpsters causes major problems and inefficiencies. “We are not a waste hauler,” Murphy quipped.
The 8-cubic-yard dumpsters are provided at no cost, and there is also no collection charge. Only plastic bunker covers without scrim, silo bag plastic, and bale wrap, which are low-density polyethylene, can be used in the company’s recycling process. Plastic bale twine and net wrap are typically high-density polyethylene or polypropylene products and require a different recycling process not offered by the company.
Murphy said that they will work with any farm within their service area that produces more than 2,000 pounds of the approved plastics annually. A pickup schedule is worked out between the company and the farm, which could range from every two to 16 weeks based on the farm size and amount of plastic utilized. Smaller operations have the opportunity to share a dumpster.
Delta Plastics has been recycling irrigation polytube in the South since 1996. The silage plastic subsidiary, Revolution Plastics, has been collecting used silage plastic in California’s Central Valley since 2006; there, the collected material is recycled into landscape boards. Over 500 dairy farms in the Golden State are recycling plastic with the company, which accounts for millions of pounds each month. In addition to Wisconsin, the company is also collecting Midwest agricultural plastics in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.
“We haven’t changed the world,” said Murphy, who is based in Madison, “but collecting a million pounds of agricultural plastics per month in Wisconsin has made a noticeable difference in cleaning up the rural landscape. It’s been a real ‘win’ for all rural residents and the environment,” he added.
To inquire about having used plastics picked up on your farm, visit RevolutionPlastics.com, or call 844-490-7873.
This article appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 10.
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