St. Lawrence County Agricultural Plastics Recycling Project

Final Report for ONE09-112

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2009: $9,850.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Keith Zimmerman
St. Lawrence County
Co-Leaders:
Matilda Larson
St. Lawrence County
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Project Information

Summary:

To promote recycling as the most appropriate method for disposing used agricultural plastics, St. Lawrence County Cornell Cooperative Extension staff worked with farmers who were interested in incorporating “Best Management Practices” (BMPs) to prepare the material for recycling. From September 2009 through December 2010, Cooperative Extension conducted participant surveys, and coordinated a series of six collection and demonstration events throughout St. Lawrence County to show how farmers could incorporate BMPs into their daily routine. With assistance from St. Lawrence County’s Soil and Water Conservation District, this project partnered with Cornell University’s ongoing Tri-County Recycling Agricultural Plastics Program (RAPP). Thirty-one farmers from this project contributed approximately 27 tons (55,574 pounds) of the 45 tons of ag plastics that was collected and baled for recycling. Twenty-two out of the 31 farmers also completed surveys at the beginning and ending of this project to evaluate changes in perceptions about the challenges and benefits of preparing the material for recycling.

Introduction:

Plastic bale wrap, silage bags and bunker covers – commonly referred to as agricultural plastics - have become an integral component of farm operations. They are, however, often used once, and must be disposed after fulfilling a single, intended purpose. Due to the volume of waste that is generated by ag plastics, farmers face the challenge of disposing the material that is cost-effective and environmentally appropriate. While recycling ag plastics is ideal, it is presently the least used disposal option. To recycle agricultural plastics, farmers must incorporate Best Management Practices (BMPs) which involve: Separating the material by type; shaking or rinsing it free of debris; cutting it into 30 pound pieces; and folding and storing the material in a dry, covered location until it can be collected and baled. Because of these steps, farmers may perceive the process as too messy and time consuming, and competes for valuable storage space on a farm. Accepting ag plastics for recycling is also not a standard service that is offered by private or public solid waste transfer stations. As a result of these factors, recycling is currently the least used disposal option among farmers.

Presently farmers utilize three options to dispose ag plastics: burning or burying the material on the farm, or paying a tipping fee to landfill the material. While burning or burying the material on the farm is the least costly disposal method, it can adversely affect water, soil and air quality, and negatively impact the public’s perception of the farming industry. While landfilling the material eliminates the presence of plastics on a farm, it creates a farming expense and does not solve a growing environmental problem.

Project Objectives:

To promote the recycling of agricultural plastics as the preferred disposal method among farmers, St. Lawrence County partnered with Cornell University’s Tri-County Recycling Agricultural Plastics Project (RAPP) and the St. Lawrence County Soil and Water Conservation District conducted a demonstration project to show farmers how to incorporate BMPs into their daily farming routines. The project goal was to collect 40,000 pounds of agricultural plastics from 11 farmers who would utilize BMPs to prepare the material for recycling.

To achieve this goal, the following targets were established to generate farmer interest and project participation:
September – October 2009:
Schedule, promote and conduct kick off meeting with interested farmers

November 2009 – September 2010:
Conduct initial surveys with participating farmers to obtain baseline data
Conduct field visits to participating farms and demonstrate best management practices
Calculate the anticipated volume of plastics that will be prepared for recycling

January 2010 – September 2010:
Develop, promote and implement collection and baling schedule
Calculate baled ag plastics at each collection, and transport bales to County transfer station
Conduct four demonstrations at public events to promote project

October 2010:
Collect final surveys from farmers to evaluate changes in perceptions

November 2010:
Publish news articles about project findings and accomplishments

December 2010:
Project close out

This project exceeded its goal of collecting 20 tons of plastics from 11 participating farmers. In conjunction with Cornell University’s Recycling Agricultural Plastics Project and the St. Lawrence County Soil and Water Conservation District, this project assisted with the collection of 90,000 pounds of agricultural plastics from farmers who prepared it for recycling. To date, a total of 75 bales of plastic (each weighing approximately 1,200 pounds) are located at Cooperative Extension’s Learning Farm in Canton, and they are ready for shipment to a manufacturer for reuse. The breakdown of bale type is as follows: 38 bales of bunker cover, 32 bales of bale wrap, 3 bales of net wrap, 1 bale of greenhouse cover, and 1 bale of poly bags from greenhouse media mix. Staff also collected initial and final surveys from 22 out of 31 farmers to evaluate changes in their perceptions about preparing the material for recycling.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Bob Andrews
  • Brian and Elizabeth Bawden
  • Raymond Bowdish
  • Eugene Dana
  • Doug and Heather Donahue
  • Paul and Roberta Evans
  • David Fisher
  • Greg Hargrave
  • Tom Hayes
  • Allen and Mary Kelly
  • Dean and Megan Kent
  • Mike Latimer
  • Tom Lee
  • Jordan MacDonald
  • Daniel and Mendy Martin
  • Gilbert Peck
  • Brian Phillips
  • Jim Putman
  • David Rastley
  • Doug and Bonnie Reed
  • Bill Siebels
  • John Stay
  • Dave Theobald
  • Tom Van Buren
  • Paul Winters
  • Joseph tiRele

Research

Materials and methods:

As an educational outreach project, information about the project and Best Management Practices for recycling ag plastics was promoted through press releases; a kick-off meeting; phone conversations with interested farmers; publishing BMPs in Cooperative Extension’s newsletter; and through a series of collections and demonstrations in the field. Guidelines for preparing the material for recycling were published in Cooperative Extension’s newsletter, a monthly publication that is delivered to more than 1,100 addresses across the North Country. A hundred copies of the guidelines were also printed and distributed each month at the Soil and Water Conservation District’s front counter. Approximately 85% of the farmers who participated in the project contacted Cooperative Extension as a result of reading the BMPs in the bi-monthly newsletter, or by obtaining a copy of the BMPs from Soil and Water’s front counter. Copies of news articles and the BMP guidelines are attached.

A second effective method of generating interest and participation in the project was to display the baler and conduct baling demonstrations at events that were well attended for other purposes. Those events included:
The Sustainable Living Project in Canton on September 25-26, 2009 (1,200 attendees)
Cooperative Extension’s Joint Annual Dinner with the American Dairy Association in Madrid on October 29, 2009
The Seed Expo in Madrid on December 4, 2009 (20 attendees)
The Northern New York Dairy Institute Herd Health Course in Canton in spring, 2010
The County Fair in Gouverneur from August 2-8, 2010 (4,500 weekend attendees); and
The Northern New York Dairy Institute Nutrition Course in Canton in fall, 2010

Persons from five farms attended the kick-off meeting at the Joint Annual Dinner on October 29th, and approximately 12 persons attended the Herd Health and Nutrition courses. At all other events, staff interacted with a rolling audience of two to five persons at a time.

Throughout the year, a series of six collections were held on the following dates and locations:
October 21, 26 and 27, 2009 at the County Fair Grounds in Gouverneur, at Roput Farms in Heuvelton, and at the Morristown Highway Garage in Brier Hill.
February 25 and 26, 2010 at the Ogdensburg Transfer Station, Roput Farms in Heuvelton, and at the County Fair Grounds in Gouverneur.
May 24 through 27, 2010 at the Extension Learning Farm (specifically for rigid plastics)
July 30, and August 4 and 6, 2010 at the County Fair in Gouverneur
August 8 through 16, 2010, and November 11 through 30, 2010 for on-farm collections in the towns of Dekalb Depeyster, Canton, Madrid, Oswegatchie and Potsdam

Copies of schedules and news articles announcing the collections are attached.

At collection events, Best Management Practices were reinforced when reviewing the material for cleanliness and organization before it was baled, otherwise, the material could not be used for manufacturing purposes. In some instances, some plastics could not be accepted, and project staff would review with farmers what steps were necessary to ensure the plastics could be recycled. On other occasions, household trash would be found intermingled with the material and would have to be separated out before baling.

Research results and discussion:

In conjunction with Cornell University’s Tri-County Recycling Agricultural Plastics Project (RAPP), this project assisted with the collection and baling of 90,000 pounds of ag plastics from farmers who prepared the material for recycling. The project’s original goal of collecting 20 tons of prepared plastics for baling from 11 farmers was based on a 2004 County project that promoted off-site disposal as the preferred method for discarding used ag plastics. At that time, in lieu of burying or burning the material on farms, 53 farmers delivered 105 tons of the material to County transfer stations. Because recycling agricultural plastics involves a commitment of time, energy, and storage space to prepare the material, the County conservatively estimated that 1 in 5 farmers who participated in the 2004 project would be willing to participate in this one. The County was pleasantly surprised to have more than twice as many farmers participate in the project. Due to a high level of participation and the volume of plastics that would be prepared for recycling, $980 that was originally set aside for the dumpster rentals was reallocated to cover staff time to maximize the number of collections events, and for staff time to bale the material.

The project was implemented according to seasonal weather conditions, baler availability, and the availability of a heavy-duty truck. In 2009, St. Lawrence County experienced a rather rainy summer. For fourteen days in July, nearly 6 inches of rain fell, which was 2 inches more than normal. The project kick-off meeting was originally scheduled for July 30th, but the event competed with one of the few sunny, dry days of the month. As a result, no one attended the first meeting as farmers opted to take advantage of the dry weather. To accommodate the wetter than usual summer season, the project timeline was rearranged, and the kick-off meeting was rescheduled to coincide with Cooperative Extension’s Joint Annual Dinner on October 29th.

An extended delay in the arrival of a state-funded baler to be shared between St. Lawrence County and Franklin County resulted in a high demand for a single baler that was available through Clinton County’s Soil and Water Conservation District. As a result, collections could only occur when the baler was not in use elsewhere in the state. Arrangements also had to be made for a vehicle to haul the baler throughout the county. The project originally anticipated access to a vehicle from the County Highway Department for hauling purposes. Due to the limited availability of a highway worker to drive their truck, a more readily accessible vehicle was provided by the St. Lawrence County Soil and Water Conservation District. In light of these limitations, multi-day collection events were held to maximize project participation and bale as much of the material as possible.

Because St. Lawrence County – the largest county in New York - encompasses 2,822 square miles (larger than the state of Delaware), the project partners realized the cost of hiring a flatbed tractor trailer to pick up the bales at the end of the project would be high. This caused the partners to determine that it would be more cost effective to store the bales at Cooperative Extension’s Learning Farm in Canton. By keeping bales at a centralized location, a shorter, more direct (and therefore less expensive) haul route was established than picking up bales at transfer stations in Massena, Ogdensburg and Gouverneur. Compacted bales were transported back to the Learning Farm in the baler as well as in the back of the heavy duty pick up truck. At that time, project staff was not aware the baler wasn’t designed to carry a bale en route, and this unknowingly damaged the baler’s chassis and front wheel, which required repair when it was in the County’s possession.

By storing the bales in a centralized location, the project partners designated the Learning Farm as a year-round collection site where participants could deliver their prepared plastics at their convenience. This option was particularly helpful to farmers in and around the Canton area who had limited storage space available, and were able to deliver their prepared plastics on a regular basis.

Research conclusions:

From April 2009 to December 2010, 31 farmers participated in Cornell University’s ongoing Recycling Agricultural Plastics Project and contributed to the collection of 45 tons of agricultural plastics in St. Lawrence County. Twenty-two of these farmers completed the initial and final surveys and were responsible for contributing 55,574 pounds (approximately 28 tons) of the total amount.

More than 31 farmers originally expressed interest in the project but did not participate as planned. One farm relocated to Maine; another sold his farm; one said he didn’t have sufficient labor to incorporate BMPs; and one farm simply opted to wait another year. There were also two farmers who determined they did not have sufficient storage space to contain the large volume of ag plastics they would generate between collection dates. In both instances, these farms would have required the use of a storage van, above and beyond what this project could have provided through a conventional dumpster.

For farmers who participated in the project, initial surveys were distributed to farmers at the beginning of the project to collect baseline data. At the end of the project, final surveys were mailed to participant addresses to evaluate changes in their perceptions about preparing ag plastics for recycling. When a survey wasn’t returned, farmers received phone calls to complete the survey over the phone. In these instances, staff would call participants twice (if necessary) in an attempt to complete the form. Of the 31 farmers who participated in the project, 22 completed both the initial and final surveys (for a 71% response rate) to determine: The amount of ag plastics used on a farm, how plastics were previously disposed, how much of the material was prepared for recycling, and to see if their attitudes about project challenges and benefits changed after participating in the project. Copies of the initial and final survey forms are attached.

Twenty-two farmers who completed the initial survey reported that they used more than 62,000 pounds of agricultural plastics annually. On average, each farm generated 2,822 pounds of used agricultural plastics. The largest type of ag plastics used were bunker covers (34,025 pounds or 55%), followed by bale wrap (21,117 pounds or 34%) and silage bags (3,450 pounds or 6%). The smallest quantities of ag plastics were fertilizer bags (2,000 pounds or 3%), greenhouse covers (1,000 pounds or 2%), and rigid plastics (500 pounds or 1%).

When asked what disposal methods were used before participating in the project, farmers reported that 94% of the material (58,077 pounds) was hauled to a transfer station or collected by a waste hauler, and 6% (4,015 pounds) was either buried or burned on the farm. Private haulers collected 39,314 pounds (or 63%) of the material from farms; farmers delivered 18,763 pounds (or 30%) to a transfer station; while 2,255 pounds (4%) was buried, and the remaining 1,760 pounds (3%) was burned on the farm. On average, farmers who disposed the material off site paid $638 in tipping fees annually.

After reviewing Best Management Practices with farmers about preparing the material for recycling, participants assumed they would be able to recycle 79% (49,351 pounds) of the material they used annually.

On a scale from 1 to 5 (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neutral, 4 = agree, and 5 = strongly agree), farmers were asked for their reasons for participating in the project. Farmers were asked if they were looking to: Reduce their tipping fees; Minimize pollution on their farm; Improve the appearance of their farm; and If they wanted to help the environment. The farmers’ average response was strongly agree (4.7) to minimize pollution on the farm, and strongly agree (4.6) to help the environment. Farmers also agreed (4.3) that they wanted improve the farm’s appearance, and they agreed (4.0) they wanted to reduce tipping fees.

On a scale from 1 to 5 (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neutral, 4 = agree, and 5 = strongly agree), farmers were asked about the perceived challenges for participating in the project. Farmers were asked if BMPs took too much time; was a messy process; or if they didn’t have enough covered storage space. On average, farmers agreed (3.6) that utilizing BMPs was a messy process; they were neutral (3.4) that they didn’t have any or enough storage space; and they were neutral (3.0) that it would take too much time to prepare the material. A summary of the initial survey responses is attached.

Farmers were also asked two open-ended questions. They were asked to identify the biggest challenge, and the biggest benefit for participating in the project. The most common response to the biggest challenge (eight farmers) was ensuring BMPs were fully and correctly incorporated into their daily routine. Six farmers said finding the time to prepare the plastics would be a challenge as it would compete with other daily chores. The third most common response (four farmers) was working around the availability of the baler to participate in the collections. When asked about the biggest benefit for participating in the farm, eight farmers said removing the plastic made the farm cleaner, and six farmers said it would help the environment. Six farmers also said it would save money by reducing tipping fees. A summary of the participants’ open ended responses is attached.

At the conclusion of the project, farmers were asked the same set of questions to determine if they were able to recycle as much as they anticipated, and to see if their perceptions about the project’s benefits and challenges changed. Seven farmers reported they were able to prepare all of the ag plastics they used for recycling. On average, farmers reported they recycled 90% (55,574 pounds) of the ag plastics used on their farm, 11% more than originally anticipated. On average, each farm prepared 2,526 pounds of ag plastics for recycling.

A comparison of the before and after perceptions concerning project benefits and challenges showed only minor changes among the farmers. After the project, there was a slightly higher inclination among participants to disagree with the perceived challenges about preparing the material for recycling. On a scale from 1 to 5 (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neutral, 4 = agree, and 5 = strongly agree), the farmers’ average response was neutral (2.8) that preparing the material took too much time; and were neutral (3.2) that it was a messy process. Initial responses were 3.0 and 3.6 respectively, indicating a greater inclination to disagree with both challenges. On average, farmers were neutral (3.0) about not having sufficient storage space for the material, down from 3.4 in the initial survey.

Farmers were more inclined to agree that participating in the project helped reduce tipping fees. On average, farmers agreed (4.2) the project helped reduce tipping fees, up .2 from the initial survey (4.0). The remaining perceptions about benefits gained from the project – reducing farm pollution, improving farm appearance and helping the environment – all slightly declined. After the project, farmers on average agreed (4.2) that participating in the project minimized farm pollution, down from strongly agree (4.7) at the beginning of the project. Farmers also agreed (4.1) that participating in the project improved the appearance of the farm, down from 4.3; and they agreed (4.5) that participating in the project helped the environment, down from strongly agree (4.6) at the beginning of the project.

Project staff assumed there would be a greater difference between the before and after perceptions about participating in the project. Instead, farmer perceptions did not change by more than half a point. The relatively small changes in the farmers’ perceptions may be due to the self-selection of participants who opted to join this project. Farmers who contacted Cooperative Extension to participate may have already adopted recycling habits in their homes, and were willing to extend those habits into their farm operations.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Please refer to the “Materials and Methods” section for a description of the publication and outreach efforts of this project.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Before the project began, 94% (58,077 pounds) of ag plastics used by 22 farmers was either delivered to a transfer station, or picked up by a waste hauler. At that time, famers who disposed the material offsite incurred an average annual tipping fee of $638. As a result of incorporating BMPs to prepare the material for recycling, farmers reduced the amount of ag plastics that was disposed offsite to 10% (6,447 pounds) and the average annual tipping fee decreased by $160 to $478.

Farmer Adoption

Farmers were asked a series of open-ended questions in the final survey. Farmers were asked to identify other challenges they encountered during the project. The most common response from 10 farmers was “none.” Three farmers identified self-discipline; having to handle the material multiple times; and bringing the material to collection locations as challenges. Three farmers also identified keeping the material clean and dry as challenges. The most common response (5 farmers) for other benefits for participating in the project was that it promoted recycling. Three farmers said the project redirected the material from a landfill, and three farmers said there were no other benefits.

When farmers were asked to identify the best part about participating in the project, seven farmers said recycling plastics reduced their tipping fees. Five farmers said it helped keep their farms clean, and three farmers said it helped the environment. When asked what they would tell another farmer about the project, seven farmers recommended exercising BMPs as soon as the plastic was being removed; preparing the material in smaller pieces; and keeping the material together. Four famers recommended others just “do it,” and one farmer recommended the baler be reconfigured so the material could be easily fed into the machine and removed when compacted. The baler was adapted from a tobacco baler that operates in a top down fashion. Due to the bulk and weight of the material, the farmer recommended the baler be retrofitted to replicate a hay baler and operation in a side by side fashion. Staff also realized during the collection process that the baled material could only be moved onto a truck if heavy equipment was available on a farm. If not, the bale would have to remain on the farm until it was collected at a later date by project staff.

Other feedback farmers verbally shared with staff included displaying products made with recycled ag plastics (e.g. benches, picnic tables, patio decking) at demonstration events so farmers could see the benefit of their recycling efforts. A suggestion was also made to create an online video demonstrating BMPs that could be watched at a farmer’s convenience.

A copy of the farmers’ open-ended responses from the final survey is attached.

A state funded baler to be shared between St. Lawrence and Franklin County was delivered in October 2009, and is now available for use through the St. Lawrence County Soil and Water Conservation District. To date, 14 farmers from the project have received orientation and training to properly use the baler, and have borrowed the baler to compact plastics on their own. For now, farmers may continue to deliver their compacted bales to Cooperative Extension for recycling until Cornell University’s Recycling Agricultural Plastics Program has secured a manufacturer who will ship the material out for recycling.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

As a result of the baler’s visibility in the media and at public events, non-farmers contacted project staff to see if seasonal, plastic boat covers and biomass pellet bags would be eligible for recycling. Both items are made of the same material as ag plastics, and are considerably cleaner than ag plastics when they are no longer in use.

Based on the project’s high level of participation and interest among boat owners and biomass energy consumers to recycle their material, St. Lawrence County has the opportunity to consider whether its solid waste facilities should to accept these plastics for recycling. These materials, however, must meet minimum cleanliness standards in order to be recycled by a manufacturer. The demand for these materials also hinges on a volatile recycling market that is highly sensitive to oil prices. Since the beginning of the recent economic recession, prices for recycled materials plummeted, and Cornell University’s Recycling Ag Plastics Project (RAPP) has experienced difficulty in securing an end-user who is willing to reuse the material for manufacturing purposes. Now that gas prices are approaching $4 per gallon, however, manufacturers from as far as California only recently contacted project staff with an interest in acquiring the bales. Due to price volatility and material cleanliness requirements, solid waste management facilities will have to examine if they are willing to cover the costs of enforcing minimum quality standards when accepting the material, and if they are willing to hold onto the material when the demand for these materials quickly fluctuates.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.