Recycler Closes the Loop on Ag Plastics

The final resting place for plastic used in plasticulture vegetable production has been a topic few growers like to discuss.  Recycling is difficult, since the used plastic is dirty and mixed with plant material; as a result it is usually quietly sent to local landfills.  New technology, combined with increased oil prices, has recently changed this situation.
The story begins in 2000, when a plastic recycler indicated he could take the plastic if it was compressed into a form that could be economically shipped.  Not enough loose material will fit into a trailer to make it economical to truck.  Loose material is also difficult to handle at the receiving station.  Presented with this challenge, I began to investigate ways to compress the plastic. I found out members of the Vriesland Growers Co-op were baling used greenhouse plastic using a round hay baler, so I arranged to rent their baler in September 2001.
Vriesland’s baler was manufactured by PMI and is a belt baler producing a “soft” bale.  The chamber on the baler starts out large and compresses the bale only near the end of the baling process.  Some balers produce a “hard” bale by having the baling chamber start small and grow as the bale gets larger, compressing it throughout the baling cycle.  Previous work for Vriesland found balers producing a hard bale did not work for plastic.  PMI no longer makes balers, but used PMI balers can be found and other manufacturers use the same technology.
Another baler that was successfully used was the M&W. It also produces a soft bale, but using different technology.  Rather than using belts, it is basically a hinged “can” with a roller at the bottom. The roller is a series of bars connected by chains that rotate around the inside of the can.  It is cleaner than belt balers, which occasionally catch and tear plastic that gets caught between the belts and the roller, leaving small pieces of plastic trailing behind the baler. This does not happen with the M&W technology.  Operation of the M&W baler can be seen at  Results of this work also appeared in the November 2001 issue of The Vegetable Growers News.
For baling, plastic mulch and tape have to first be lifted from the soil and placed in the alleyways.  The baler then passes over them and picks them up.  Both types of balers are capable of picking up mulch and drip tape together, or mulch alone.  They cannot pick up drip tape alone; it does not weigh enough to get the bale started.
With the compression part of the problem solved, I contacted the recycler who issued the original challenge only to find he did not want the product.  I have since found this is often the case when recycling plastics.  It was not a total loss, however. Landfill costs in our area were based on volume, so simply compressing the plastic saved growers labor, trucking and landfill costs.  The savings were significant enough that in 2001 two growers were baling plastic and by 2004 the number had grown to six.
In 2004, Michael McNaughton and Phil Graham from Recycling Revolutions approached me, wanting to take all of this type of plastic they could get.  I was a little reluctant, since other companies over the past three years expressed interest but never actually took delivery.  I put them in contact with growers currently baling plastic and in March 2005 Meyer Recycling Inc. (headed by Brian Meyer), working with Recycling Revolutions, began to haul it away at no charge to the grower.
The plastic is being taken to Orland, Ind., where the plan is to wash and shred it and make it reusable as a base product for new film and tape.  Arrangements have been made to take plastic from five Southwest Michigan operations.
Recycling plastic saves growers an estimated $35 per acre.  This savings is in labor, trucking and landfill costs.  There is a bit of a learning curve to using the balers for plastic removal, and growers have slightly modified them to increase their efficiency.  Balers that work best are those producing a four- or five-foot bale.  Larger balers have not worked well because the bales are too heavy.  
Any grower wanting information on baling plastic can call me at (269) 944-1477 ext. 207. Growers wanting to recycle plastic can call Brian Meyer at (260) 316-0546.  The recycling company will take used transplant trays and plastic picking buckets.

Reprinted with permission from The Vegetable Growers News Vol. 35, No. 5.