Why Is Plastic Waste A Problem On Farms?

Plastic is a marvelous innovation, but unfortunately it is an innovation that lasts forever. When plastic wears out or when it is no longer needed, it never decomposes on its own. As a result, bits of plastic both large and small end up littering the landscape clogging up waterways and eventually making their way into the ocean. Currently, more than 250,000 tons of plastic pollute the ocean. This plastic will never break down. Instead, it melds with rocks and other debris to produce a nearly indestructible stone-like aggregate.

Sadly, farms are among the worst plastic polluters on earth. In this article, we explain why plastic waste is such a problem on farms and provide smart tips to help you reduce the amount of plastic pollution you produce on your farm. Read on to learn more on how to deal with plastic waste on farms.

Why Do Farms Produce So Much Plastic Waste?

how to deal with plastic waste on farms

In many cases, plastic that is intended for agricultural use is only used one time and then must be disposed of. For example, the plastics that are used to contain chemicals, fertilizers, hay and silage must be very strong and durable yet when they product they contain is gone, the package will remain for time immemorial.

Even a very small farm makes big use of plastic. It’s not unusual for a small farm to spend between $4000 and $6000 on plastic products for farm use annually. Common farm plastic items include:

  1. Black plastic is used to block weed growth and help retain moisture in the soil.
  2. PVC pipes are used to carry water to crops.
  3. Plastic drip irrigation tape pinpoints water delivery.
  4. Fertilizer and other products come in plastic sacks.
  5. Young plants are identified using plastic stakes and/or plastic plant tags.
  6. Bales of straw, hay and silage are wrapped in plastic.
  7. Greenhouses are covered with plastic film.
  8. Pesticides and other chemicals come in plastic containers.
  9. Animal feed and water dishes and troughs are made of plastic.
  10. Hay bales are often held together by plastic rope or plastic baling twine.

Add to all this the amount of plastic that the average farm family (like any other family) uses in the household and it’s easy to see why farms in the United States alone produce about 1 billion pounds of plastic waste annually.

What Can Farmers Do To Get Rid Of Plastic Waste?

In the old days, farmers buried and burned plastic waste just as any other waste. These days we know that this is an absolutely unacceptable way of getting rid of unwanted plastic. As with all unwanted items, applying the standard of reduce, reuse and recycle is the preferred approach.

Sadly, at this time according to an article in the Smithsonian magazine, only about 10% of the plastic waste produced by farms is recycled. Although farmers are willing and eager to dispose of their plastic waste properly, recycling sites and hours of acceptance of drop off materials are limited at this time.

Many recycling programs are very focused. You may not be able to get rid of all of your agricultural plastic waste through your local recycling center, but you should avail yourself of the services that are open to you. The more you use recycling services, the more successful they will be and the more they will expand and grow.

Is Plastic Recycling Really Worth The Bother?

Your local agricultural extension may also be able to point you in the direction of grants and other financial incentives to help you with recycling and zero waste farming.

Even without financial incentive, there are many good reasons to appropriately recycle plastic farm waste. If you just take your plastic farm waste to landfill, it will be buried, and it will remain underground, unchanged for decades or centuries. Additionally, you’ll probably have to pay a hefty fee to have your plastic waste buried at the landfill.

Of course, you don’t want to bury it on your own property as this degrades the value of your land and may even result in having dangerous chemicals leeched into the soil and water. This is also why burning plastic waste is absolutely unacceptable. Burning plastic releases a deadly cocktail of toxins.

How Can Farmers Reduce The Amount Of Plastic Waste They Produce?

Reducing plastic waste is dependent in great part on the choices a farmer makes. For example, instead of choosing the popular black plastic mulch, farmers might instead turn to more natural, plant-based mulches such as straw, wood chips or even biodegradable material such as cardboard or thick layers of newspaper.

It’s important that farmers not only recycle the plastic waste they produce, they must also choose to purchase recycled plastic products whenever they can. This contributes to the cycling element of recycling and the success of the venture over all.

7 Smart Tips To Help You Reduce Plastic Waste On Your Farm

  1. Always buy in bulk. Getting more product in a larger container means less plastic waste.
  2. Buy products in refillable containers whenever possible.
  3. Stay in touch with your local agricultural extension and be aware of any new recycling opportunities that may exist in your community.
  4. Research any new plastic materials you may purchase. Understand how many steps it takes to recycle materials you buy and their packaging. Make sure that recycling opportunities exist for those products.
  5. Seek out products that are made of recycled plastic whenever you can.
  6. If you are absolutely unable to recycle plastic waste, be sure that you dispose of it properly by taking it to an official, registered landfill.
  7. Be safe! Never bury or burn plastic waste.

The bottom line is that there are many different solutions to explore to deal with the proliferation of plastic waste from farms. Every small step helps to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic waste.

Farm Waste: The Growing Problem Of Plastic Farm Waste

In Australia, simple solutions such as placing dumpsters for plastic waste (e.g. baling twine, silage wrap, etc.) in locations that are convenient to farmers greatly increased the amount of agricultural plastic received by recycling centers.

A program of this sort, known as drumMUSTER, is quite successful in Australia. This program makes arrangements individually with farmers to leave drums on site to be picked up once they have been filled with plastic waste.

This program has prevented nearly 40,000 tons of plastic waste from being burned or buried in Australia. Furthermore, it makes good use of waste plastic as a resource. When the plastic is collected, it is recycled and reused to make products for sale and use in Australia.

What Products Can Be Made Of Recycled Farm Plastics?

Once bits of hay and dirt have been removed from farm plastics and the materials have been melted down, they can find a new life as plastic products such as:

  • Clear Film to Cover Growing Produce
  • Reusable Plastic Shopping Bags
  • Underground Cable Covers
  • Irrigation Pipes
  • Garbage Bins
  • Fence Posts

This innovative program also contributes to community groups to strengthen opportunities and services in farm communities. Talk with your local agricultural extension to find out what recycling options are available to you in your area.

Resource:

  1. Minimizing Plastic Waste on Farm – Reduce, Reuse & Recycle
Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Farm & Animals since 2019. Farm animals have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.

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