Johnston County Farmers Test New Equipment to Collect, Recycle Field Plastic

Author: Laura J. Leonard

What happens to the black plastic film or mulch that sits on mounds of newly planted produce on North Carolina’s nearly 50,000 farms? A project supported by Waste Reduction Partners, North Carolina State University extension agents, the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission and other partners is pursuing ways to improve the field collection process to prepare this plastic for recycling.

“Innovation comes when you find ways to recycle new products to keep more and more materials out of the landfill,” said Terry Albrecht, Waste Reduction Partners manager. “Whether you work in an office or on a farm, identifying and implementing ways to be energy, waste and water efficient protects North Carolina’s natural resources for future generations.”

According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, there are 46,400 farms spread across 8.4 million acres of land in North Carolina that contribute billions of dollars annually to the state’s economy. For nearly 20 years, those North Carolina farmers have been using plastic film (a process called plasticulture) to grow high-yield fruit and vegetable crops with less water use and herbicides.

Typically, after the harvest, farmers pull up these plastic films mostly by hand and collect them for disposal. It is estimated that more than 1,100 tons of plasticulture waste are generated annually across the state. While growing crops on plastic film (or plastic mulch) has its advantages, the question remains how best to manage these plastic films at the end of the growing season.

Waste Reduction Partners staff, working with NCSU Extension programs, are testing novel equipment to help farmers lift and roll up the plastic in a clean and efficient manner. The WRP team has been working hard to identify recycling markets and help recycling processors develop new approaches to cleaning and processing this challenging material. Waste Reduction Partners in the Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service helps North Carolina organizations improve environmental and energy management through efficiency techniques that save money, conducting onsite assessments and providing consulting services to businesses and public facilities.

“At the Johnston County trial, it was good to see the best management practices working for the farmer,” said Craig Mauney, NCSU Extension agent and project coordinator. “Anything we as a group can do to support our local farmers and make them more profitable and at the same time improve our relationship with the environment around us is a good thing.”

The retrieval equipment has shown cost and labor savings of $125 per acre on vegetable farms in western North Carolina. Now, this technology is being tested in the eastern North Carolina.

A few weeks ago, Lee’s Produce farmers in Dunn conducted field trials with retrieval equipment purchased through the demonstration project in coordination with the Johnston County Extension program. Representatives from eight area farms attended the demonstration event and were enthusiastic about the efficiencies of this new mulch collection process.

As new markets for agriculture plastic films develop, these materials will be ready for recycling. NCSU Cooperative Extension staff have also developed best management practices for the collection and future recycling of these plastic films as part of the project.

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