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MANAWA – For several years Wisconsin farmers have benefited from using a variety of plastic products to store and preserve forage. However, disposing of the used plastic posed both economic and environmental problems for the producers.

During a recent meeting of central Wisconsin forage growers, Greg Blonde, Waupaca County Extension agriculture educator, reported that according to a Cornell University study, US agriculture uses approximately 1 billion pounds of plastic each year. “The study also revealed that only about 10 percent of the plastic was being recycled,” he said.

“A couple of years ago, the Wisconsin department of Natural Resources surveyed 1,500 farms, and found was that almost two-thirds were using bunker covers, and more than half were using silo bags and bale wrap,” Blonde noted.

The primary disposal method used by Wisconsin farmers was having the used plastic hauled to landfills. “The estimated annual cost for landfilling the plastic was $750 - $1,000, or more per farm,” Blonde related. “While almost half of farmers surveyed said they’d be willing to pay up to $50 per month, the majority said they weren’t willing to pay anything to get rid of it.”

What Blonde and other Extension agents were looking for was a way to save farmers the cost of landfilling the used plastic, while also protecting the environment.

Recycling solution

The solution for many farmers came from Arkansas. Revolution Plastics, which had a long track record of recycling used agricultural plastic in southern states, started a pilot recycling program in Green County in 2014. “That worked out so well that in 2015 we placed more dumpsters on farms in Grant and Lafayette counties,” said Price Murphy, Revolution Plastics Wisconsin operations manager.

Based on the success in these three counties, the company expanded its program into many other areas of the state. In September 2016, Revolution Plastics delivered more than 100 recycling dumpsters to Waupaca County Farmers.

Murphy provided those attending the recent producer meeting with an update on his company and its recycling program.

“We actually take the plastic into our own factories, wash it, shred it and recycle it into trash can liners, which are sold nationwide.” he explained. “We’ve been recycling used ag plastic in the South since 1996. In 2015 we exceeded 1 billion pounds of recycled material.”

The company provides each qualifying farm with a free 8-yard dumpster and free collection service using its trucks and drivers. “Then we bale and ship the product down to Arkansas for manufacturing,” Murphy said. “Many of our products contain 94 percent recycled plastic.”

According to Murphy, farmers must place only approved items in the dumpster. These include bunker covers, silage bags and bale wrap.

Continued expansion

Revolution Plastics currently has more than 2,400 dumpsters on farms throughout Wisconsin. “My team is collecting more than 1 million pounds of plastic every month from these farms, keeping the plastic out of the land fills and and protecting the environment,” said Murphy..

Farmers participating in the program are saving anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 a year on landfill tipping fees, according to Murphy.

“But we’re only about half way to where we want to be. We already have another 2,500 farms signed up wanting to get a dumpster. By the end of 2017 I expect our numbers to grow to almost 5,000 dumpsters.”

Murphy pointed out that his company also has created a number of jobs in Wisconsin for drivers, dispatchers and workers at facilities that bale the plastic. “We’re also generating revenue for county governments and private businesses that have baling equipment. I tell them if you have additional capacity we’ll pay you to bale the plastic. And they benefit to the tune of thousands of dollars each year,” he said..

Educating customers

Murphy stressed that expanding the recycling program, requires close cooperation between farmers and his company.

“We have to continue to educate people that recycling is not free and it’s not effortless. I’m providing a free service to the farmers but it’s not free to me. It takes quite a bit of effort. We need farmers to take the time to pick up the plastic, shake off the dirt and put it in the dumpster; that has to be done if we want to clean up the farms.”

When he meets with farmers, Murphy inquires about the farm size and how it uses plastic. “This helps us understand how many dumpsters they need and the pick up service they need,” he said. “The only way I can do an effective job is if farmers provide the information I need. About half of those with dumpsters gave me the address for their house instead of the farm.”

He advises farmers to make sure the dumpsters are readily accessible to the front-loading trash trucks that are 10 feet wide, 8 feet high and 40 feet long. “Don’t put the dumpster in your barn, under an overhand or right below wires.”

Murphy reported that his company has been producing record sales this year. “That’s a good reason to collect more ag plastic,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve changed the world yet, but getting a million pounds of plastic off the farms every month is making a noticeable difference.”

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