In recent years, agriculture has included in its practices the use of several types of plastics that not only help improve the quality of its crops, shorten the seasons and increase the production of fruits, vegetables and flowers, but also facilitate planting in non-traditional areas. However, beyond being a positive factor, farmers often find themselves at a crossroads where they don’t know what to do with these plastics once their shelf life has elapsed.
The subsequent disposal of these materials is usually a headache, especially for environmental specialists, since there are a large number of farmers who, perhaps due to lack of knowledge, engage in unrecommended practices such as burning these materials or burying them in an area of their farm for example, thus posing a health risk by compromising not only the quality of the sources of water, air and soil, but also of their own produce harvest.
Alternatives for recycling agricultural plastics
Therefore, it is worth mentioning some of the alternatives that are being implemented to recycle agricultural plastics as part of a solution that allows a more responsible use of this waste material, while reducing the environmental impact.
Perhaps, when we talk about recycling agricultural plastics you could think it is the obvious alternative to solve the waste problem. However, many farmers who have been consulted agree that one of the obstacles they encounter to do so is the lack of access to a program that collects the materials for further recycling, and as a result they try to do whatever they can with the resources available.
According to information published in a research work by Mountain View County, the use of plastic materials in agriculture has increased considerably, as well as the waste resulting from this practice, which is why the Mountain View County Agricultural Services Board (MVC) in Canada, after discussing this issue in 2005, and presenting it a year later at the Conference of the Provincial Board of Agricultural Service, began to develop a groundwork with the Mountain View Regional Waste Management Commission (MVRWMC), to address the issue of agricultural plastic waste in a comprehensive way in order to know what to do with them and how to try to promote a program specially designed to recycle agricultural plastics.
Is it necessary to implement an agricultural recycling program?
Today, some still believe we don’t really need a program of this kind but being able to have strategies to improve the quality of agricultural practices globally is of the utmost importance.
Along with these strategies are awareness campaigns that can be addressed to make known how harmful it is to incinerate plastics, since they release toxins that are damaging to humans and the environment, aside from being illegal in many countries such as Canada for example, specifically in Alberta, where there is a Substance Release Regulation of the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.
Benefits of recycling agricultural plastics
An agricultural recycling programme reduces the reliance on the landfills of the farm, the burning of barrels and minimizes the amount of waste from agricultural plastic products entering landfill systems. Also, producers can save a lot of capital by recycling agricultural plastics, since they would be avoiding the rates due to the transfer station. Everyday more people join those who support these types of programs that benefit producers, residents and the agricultural industry in general.
One of the key factors to promote the practice of recycling agricultural plastic is motivating farmers. There are some programs such as the Farm Plastic Round-up, administered by Mountain View County (MVC) that since 2007 has been responsible for motivating local residents, whether agricultural producers or not, as well as local club owners, to deliver a minimum of 100 kg of agricultural waste plastic for recycling (net wrap, tarpaulins, cords and silage), and the first 100 people who achieve the goal will receive a compensation of $100 in return, according to information provided by Mountain View County.
Biodegradable agricultural plastics
There are other alternatives to recycling such as the use of biodegradable plastics for mulching, an option that could be sustainable because it is less invasive, greener and helps to significantly reduce the amount of agricultural waste as a result of the use of plastics. However, there are some factors that farmers must keep in mind, such as some regulations that allow the use of biodegradable mulching as long as the materials used in their manufacture have a 100% biological base.
For many agricultural producers the main inconvenience is the manufacturing cost of these plastics. To learn more about this topic we recommend reading the article how biodegradable plastics can help reduce environmental impact.
There are several factors involved in the biodegradation of a biopolymer and, to evaluate the effectiveness of this type of plastics, some laboratories have conducted experiments ranging from the design of its specific chemical structure to the use of germs that facilitate the decomposing process of these films. There are other important aspects, such as temperature and the pH and humidity levels of the subsoil that can trigger and accelerate the degradation of these plastic films. To find out more about this topic, we recommend the article: advantages, disadvantages and different applications of biodegradable plastics.
Do agricultural plastics serve only one purpose?
Although agricultural plastics are usually designed to cover a specific use, sometimes once they have fulfilled their useful life, some of them can be used again for other purposes. Think for instance a wide silage sheeting that can be reused to cover a pile of wooden logs.
However, the use we are referring to here is to recover the materials once they have completed their useful life cycle. It is about recovering used agricultural films to integrate them into recycling processes in order to give them a second life.
Hence the importance of promoting new circular strategies that through collection, sorting, washing and shredding, allow to recycle used plastics and can convert again into new products the previously used agri films.
This is today the only way in which agriculture and the extended use of plastics with all their benefits, can go together and remain a sustainable activity for future generations.
The following are some of the recycling procedures that are currently being implemented to recover used plastic, which are mentioned in the publication “Plastic films in agricultural production”
- Recycling through mechanical processes
Mechanical recycling is a traditional industrial method that uses extrusion process to produce regranulated material from the common waste plastics. It is cheap, large-scale, solvent-free, and applicable to many polymers.
- Recycling through chemical processes
Here we can find various recovery methods that break the plastic down to the molecular level, that can then be used to make other materials. Some of the most advanced procedures used to recycle plastics, through chemical processes are hydrogenation, the use of solvents, catalytic degradation, gasification or pyrolysis.
The key to making these recovery alternatives more successful is to promote campaigns to raise awareness on the importance of the circular economy, not only among agricultural production companies but also with distributors, coops and the whole value chain.
For example, according to information reflected in the Plasticulture Workshop conducted jointly by Earth University and the Armando Alvarez Group, the ideal is “to develop a network of effective collections of used plastics materials to achieve the high rates (of recycling) that we aim for. In Europe, the average collection rate is more than 65%, but in some Latin American countries the collection rate of used material is very low. Therefore, finding solutions together, setting up environmental commitments with local authorities, distributors and other manufacturers so the model can work properly is of the utmost importance.”
What about greener solutions?
Today some companies are promoting increasingly eco-friendly solutions regarding the design of plastics with sustainable qualities that can answer to a market that is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of caring for and respecting the environment.
Companies such as the Armando Alvarez Group, through its GoCircularPlastics sustainability plan, offer their customers several options to optimize the use of crop plastics with films and twines that are fully recyclable, reusable, biodegradable or compostable.
Within its range of EcoSolutions, aside from promoting a circular economy model also seek to improve the life cycle of plastics through increasingly environmentally friendly production processes, the following stand out:
- RECYCLED: products that have a percentage of recycled material integrated on their formulation. They directly contribute to promote a circular economy model. Recycled materials after being compounded, can be reintegrated as new resources into new films, preventing them from becoming another waste product ending up in a landfill.
- OPTIMA: This family, covers products that are manufactured thinner or lighter to enhance their performance. They end up being highly competitive thanks to their improved efficiency, more sustainable designs, and continuous improvements in material technology.
- BIO: Are products made of biopolymers adapted to meet diverse needs. Within this range, there are biobased products made out renewable materials or designed as biodegradable materials, that could be compostable.
- ESSENTIAL: All polymer films made from a single plastic material to facilitate their recycling. The use of single material films versus multimaterials, simplifies the recycling process and thus, increases the volumes of recovered products that can be kept in a circular system improving their carbon footprint.
There are also other initiatives such as the “Recycling Agricultural Plastics Program (RAPP)” in New York State. This program funded by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, is charged in developing sustainable means for NY State farmers to manage their used agricultural plastics by recycling.
It has been created and promoted to improve the impact of agricultural plastics on the environment, providing them better disposal means once they have fulfilled their useful life and thus, converting them through recycling, into new more sustainable raw materials.
To learn more about other success stories where plastics are produced through increasingly eco-friendly processes using sustainable materials to promote environmental care, we recommend reading our article on agricultural plastics and their impact on the success of the crops in Almería (Spain).