RECYCLING AGRICULTURAL PLASTICS IN NEW YORK STATE (2003)

Lois Levitan and Ana Barros. March 2003 (2nd ed., 1st ed. Feb. 28 2003). Environmental Risk Analysis Program, Cornell University. 35 pp.
This report – compiled before there was any recycling of agricultural plastics in NYS or most anywhere else in the US – identifies (i) major uses of plastics on NYS farms, by agricultural sector and type of plastic resin; (ii) recycling technologies that are currently viable or that may be realistic in the near future; (iii) technical and infrastructural issues, as well as incentives and constraints to greater utilization of recycling technologies; and (iv) processes, agencies, and individuals involved in preparation and collection of materials. Useful as background, but most of the contact and market information is out-of-date.

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Preface. This report is a product of the Cornell “open burning group,” which formed in Winter 2002 to assess the extent and environmental health significance of open burning of household wastes and agricultural plastics in New York State (NYS), and begin work towards reducing these practices in order to protect public health and the environment. The report focuses on disposal of agricultural plastics—rather than on the household waste stream—for reasons that include the importance of agriculture in NY and the role of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in working with NYS agriculture and the environment.

Background and rationale. Plastics (LDPE, HDPE, polystyrene resins) have become ubiquitous in agriculture: In dairy farming they are used as silage bags, bunker silo covers, bale wraps and twines; in nurseries and ornamental horticulture they are used as hoophouse covers, trays and containers; in fruit and vegetable production, as row covers and mulch films. Plastic pesticide containers are used in all sectors of agriculture. Increasingly, plastics are substituted for the longer lasting materials previously used in agriculture (e.g., silage bags in place of concrete silos, plastic hoop houses in place of glass green houses) because of production efficiency and economics. More than half the plastics are disposed by burning on- farm, with most of the remainder buried or dumped on-farm. Due to inefficiencies of open combustion, emissions from open burning are much greater per mass of material burned than emissions from controlled incineration (e.g., 20 times as much dioxin, 40 times as much particulate matter). These emissions pose risks to human health.

Objective. This report compiles and evaluates information about recycling agricultural plastics. Its objective is to facilitate development of an infrastructure in NYS for off-farm disposal of plastic wastes, thus avoiding the environmental health effects and other liabilities of burning, burying, or dumping on-farm. Even in the absence of mature recycling markets, such an infrastructure is crucial because a steady stream of quality feedstock is needed in order for re-processing markets to be developed and secured.

Contents. The report identifies (i) major uses of plastics on NYS farms, by agricultural sector and type of plastic resin; (ii) recycling technologies that are currently viable or that may be realistic in the near future; (iii) technical and infrastructural issues, as well as incentives and constraints to greater utilization of recycling technologies; and (iv) processes, agencies, and individuals involved in preparation and collection of materials.

Findings.

• The extent of use and the life cycle of agricultural plastics in NYS has not been sufficiently quantified or valued to enable an assessment of the feasibility of recycling or re-processing operations. The economics of plastic use and recycling, as well as farmer incentives and constraints for recycling, should be better understood.

• Recycling of agricultural plastics has lagged behind other plastics recycling because (i) agricultural plastics are often of lower quality due to contamination with agricultural debris and degradation by UV light; (ii) agricultural plastics are dispersed across the rural landscape, more costly and inefficient to collect than urban plastics; (iii) NYS farmers have lacked incentive to recycle because it is legal to burn and dump waste plastics on-farm, and costs for collecting, compacting, and transporting used plastics off-farm for recycling have been higher than costs for on-farm disposal.

• Contamination remains a significant impediment to recycling some agricultural plastics. Research and development are needed for improved processes and equipment to reduce and remove accumulated debris (e.g., by washing, agitation, or chemical action), and for re-processing systems that can better handle plastics contaminated with soil, moisture, pesticides, vegetation, etc.

• The feasibility of regional or statewide recycling programs should be explored, given the capital costs for recycling equipment, sporadic and seasonal plastic removal, dispersed feedstock for recycling, and the need for a critical mass of materials in order to be cost effective and engage the interest of handlers, brokers and re-processors.

• Neighboring states and Canadian Province have (or are developing) successful programs for recycling various agricultural plastic resins. For similar success in NYS, agency or organizational “champions” and a favorable policy climate are recommended, because market economics alone do not provide sufficient incentive to recycle.

• Despite the impediments to recycling agricultural plastics, recycling programs are underway in the Northeast US and Canada for handling most types of plastic resins used in agriculture. E.g., a nationwide, industry-sponsored network for collecting HDPE pesticide containers; an industry-sponsored program based in Ontario, Canada, that picks up, pays for, and re-processes polystyrene nursery flats and trays in the US and Canada; an LDPE nursery film collection program in New Jersey that was opened to out-of-state producers in 2002; a plastic lumber re-processing technology based in Prince Edward Island, Canada, capable of handling “dirty” LDPE plastics used in dairying; and development at Penn State University of a plastic fuel nugget that can be burned for energy recovery.

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