Disposing of plastics used in agriculture poses challenge for Wisconsin farmers


New study looks at ways to help

Contact Joe Van Rossum,  joseph.vanrossum@ces.uwex.edu, 608-262-0936

Farmers in Wisconsin use plastics in a variety of ways. One of the most visible is the storage of animal feed in long tubes of plastic film called silo (silage) bags. Farmers use silo bags because they are relatively inexpensive and provide flexibility in managing their harvest. However, the bags are not reusable and managing the large, dirty plastic sheets is challenging and costly.

Efforts to recycle this waste material have produced mixed results. To better understand the situation and get an accurate estimate of the volume of waste plastic generated by farmers, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Survey Research Center collaborated with the University of Wisconsin-Extension, Organic Valley Cooperative and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to survey dairy producers in Wisconsin.

The results of the study, Waste Agricultural and Film Plastic Survey, Wisconsin 2015, indicate that 84% of dairy farmers and 92% of organic dairy farmers generate plastic waste.

The study found that:

  • 60% of non-organic dairies and 50% of organic dairies generated silage bags
  • 70% of organic dairies and 45% of non-organic dairies generated bale wrap
  • 34% of non-organic dairies and 10% of organic dairies generated bunker silo cover waste
  • 65% of non-organic dairies and 60% of organic dairies generated bale twine
  • 66% of organic dairies and 48% non-organic dairies generated bale netting

Farmers were also asked how they currently dispose of their waste plastic. Overall, landfilling is the most frequent disposal method for most plastics with the exceptions of pesticide containers, farm plastic containers, and other chemical containers (which have higher recycling rates).

Disposal by burning ranked second for five plastics: silage bags, bale wrap, bunker silo cover, bale twine, and bale netting.

“These materials can be very challenging to recycle,” said Joe Van Rossum, UW-Extension recycling specialist. “Understanding the volume and types of plastic waste generated gives recyclers the opportunity to estimate the amount of plastic available for collection.”

The survey indicated that farmers would be willing to participate in recycling under various conditions. Sixty-seven percent indicated they would be willing to transport their waste plastics at least 10 miles to a collection point if free recycling was provided. This compares to 55% who indicated they would be willing participate in a program that provided free on-farm pickup.

Many farmers said they would be willing to pay for this service. Thirty percent would participate if monthly costs were $50 or less and 11% would be willing to pay between $50 and $99 monthly for the pickup service.

“What we have learned through this study will allow us to work with those interested in recycling and provide insight into how to best design collection efforts,” Van Rossum said. “This material is a challenge to collect and recycle. The better information we have the more likely recycling efforts will be met with success.”

The study was financed through contributions by Organic Valley Cooperative, the University of Wisconsin-Extension Solid & Hazardous Waste Education Center and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese Company.

The study also included waste plastics generated by marinas, nurseries and greenhouses. The full report can be found on the Wisconsin DNR’s website at http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/recycling/agplastics.html.

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