Is Organic Farming Contributing to a Plastic Apocalypse?

Summer 2021

By David McDaniel

I am an organic farmer recovering from a heavy reliance on and addiction to the agricultural plastic needed to make my commercial farm competitive, productive and profitable. I got into organic farming for the noble purpose of working in a vocation that would theoretically pay a livable wage while allowing me to work in harmony with the natural world and walk more lightly on the earth. In my very first MOFGA class, I remember Eric Sideman, MOFGA’s crop specialist emeritus, saying that, at its most basic, organic farming can be defined as a method of farming that improves the health and biology of the soil for the benefit of the next generation of farmers. This made sense to me. This was a noble vocation, what a Buddhist might call “right livelihood.”

But I find myself wondering what good does it do to improve the health and biology of our soil for the next generation if we organic farmers are simultaneously filling our landfills with literal tons of discarded black plastic mulch, drip tape, polypropylene row cover, silage wrap and other agricultural plastic waste in the process?

The dirty secret of agricultural plastic is that it is not a “cradle-to-cradle” product. It is not even easily recyclable, but is instead a mostly disposable, throw-away, cradle-to-landfill enabler. It enables us as farmers to lower our operating costs, to artificially grow out of season and to gain a competitive edge while we each chase the discerning organic consumer.

Organic producers, how would you answer the question if a customer asks if your farm has a plan to reduce or eliminate wasteful agricultural plastic? Where would you tell them that your silage bales go? Your black plastic mulch? Your discarded greenhouse plastic?

I started thinking about these questions long and hard about 4 years ago, just as I was finally learning how to make my farm profitable. A heavy reliance on inexpensive agricultural plastic had become a big part of the farm’s economic equation.

My wife and I have been certified-organic farmers for 12 years. During our organic journey we gradually incorporated every type of agricultural plastic imaginable – black plastic field mulch for heat-loving vegetables, landscape cloth for weed control in our vineyard, plastic bird netting to protect the grapes, floating row cover for season extension, drip tape for irrigation, plastic flats and nursery pots for seedlings, a plastic-covered propagation greenhouse and four high tunnels. Our last plastic binge was to buy a half-acre of silage tarps for no-till field preparation.

About the time I started covering our fields with silage tarps, I started to become alarmed by the increasing barrage of ominous scientific studies reporting surging plastic pollution in our oceans, air, soil and even our bodies.

I became determined to prove to myself that all that plastic was ok to use on an organic farm as long as it could be recycled at the end of its useful life. Then, with my conscience at ease, life would once again be beautiful on Earth Dharma Farm.

Paul Gallione, owner of Moosehead Trail Farm in Waldo, Maine and Rick Kersbergen of University of Maine Cooperative Extension removing greenhouse plastic for recycling. Photo by David McDaniel and provided with the permission of Rick Kersbergen/University of Maine Cooperative Extension

I immersed myself in plastic recycling. For the past 4 years I was our town representative on the Unity Area Regional Recycling Center board. I helped create an agricultural plastic recycling committee for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and served as chair for 3 years, helping write a successful grant proposal to Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to create a greenhouse plastic recycling program. For the past 18 months, I was the project manager for the grant.

I’ve learned a lot, but my conscience is far from eased. Let me walk you through the sobering facts I’ve learned in my immersion in the world of agricultural plastic recycling and how I think we need to move forward.

False Economics of Recycling: Manufacturers Are Off the Hook

At its core, recycling is built on a false premise that the full cost and responsibility of recycling and waste disposal should been borne by the consumer and society. This economic model absolves the manufacturer from any incentive to create goods that are easily recyclable, to create the necessary markets to re-purchase the materials for recycling/re-manufacturing or, best of all, to not create unnecessary plastic. In fact, a recent documentary from Frontline and NPR revealed that the plastics industry got behind recycling in a big way in the 1980s precisely to fend off bans on certain types of plastic.

Even so, plastic recycling is one problem the free market can efficiently solve – but only if regulation sets the boundaries within which the free market operates. The gold standard is to ensure that all consumer products and packaging – including agricultural plastic – is a closed loop, cradle-to-cradle process of design, manufacturing, recycling and re-manufacturing. Society can and should assist with some of the costs for shared collection and recycling infrastructure, but only manufacturers can create the innovative product designs and closed-loop systems necessary to efficiently convert recycled waste into new raw materials and products. And most manufacturers will not do so unless required to by legislation.

Manufacturers and retailers may complain that consumer prices will rise, that profits will drop, that jobs will be lost – but most of these arguments will be overstated. And in any case, those burdens will only last until the next entrepreneur comes along and figures out how to make a profit within the new rules of the game.

Consumer Plastic is Hard to Recycle

Recycling plastic is much more difficult than recycling cardboard, metal or glass. Every type of plastic has a unique chemical formula. Plastics with similar chemical formulas and characteristics get lumped together into groups with standardized resin identification codes. These are the small numbers, one through seven, on plastic packaging that keep us busy sorting and feeling like good little recyclers.

Don Pendleton, MOFGA building and grounds assistant, at MOFGA’s greenhouse plastic drop-off site in Unity.

Don Pendleton, MOFGA building and grounds assistant, at MOFGA’s greenhouse plastic drop-off site in Unity. Photo by David McDaniel and provided with the permission of Rick Kersbergen/University of Maine Cooperative Extension

The process of reusing recycled consumer plastic is crude when compared to recycling glass and metal. If consumers correctly sort their plastic, and keep food waste and other contaminates out of the waste stream, the collected plastic can basically be shredded and melted back into a base resin and reused to manufacture new products. Unfortunately, recycled resin is often not as pure as virgin resin straight from the petrochemical plant, placing limits on the products it can be manufactured into and making it less valuable. Incorrect consumer identification and sorting only compounds this problem.

Agricultural Plastic is Really Hard, or Impossible, to Recycle

Agricultural plastic is even more difficult to recycle than other consumer plastic as it is usually heavily contaminated with soil and water. Pesticide residues on high density polyethylene (HDPE) #2 containers are a big concern with handlers. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light degrades the plastic causing it to become chemically unstable and less valuable to recycling processors. And municipal transfer stations and private recycling centers are not designed to process plastic that is this bulky and contaminated.

A handful of national companies are starting to recycle some types of heavily contaminated agricultural plastic. Revolution Plastics, based in Arkansas, has developed a “wet” recycling process to collect, wash and recycle silage bales for the dairy industry in the upper Midwest. When Cooperative Extension state dairy and forage expert Rick Kersbergen and I contacted Revolution, we learned that Maine’s estimated 1 million pounds of annual silage bale waste is too small to make it economically viable to set up a similar program in our state. We would need the volume of multiple New England states to make a collection/washing program viable.

Even with increased economies of scale, some types of agricultural plastic may not be recyclable. Two of these are black plastic mulch and floating row cover, both used in high volumes on Maine’s organic farms.

Black plastic mulch is made from the same low density polyethylene (LDPE) #4 plastic as silage bales. Revolution tried and failed to develop a program for black plastic mulch. They learned that soil particles imbedded in the thin plastic film made up over half the collected weight, making it unfeasible to ship the waste to a washing center. Except for farmers willing to wash and dry black plastic mulch by hand – not a practical proposition for any farmer I know – this plastic should be considered single-use and non-recyclable.

I was determined to also find a recycling solution for floating row cover: the lightweight polypropylene fabric used for frost protection and insect barrier in organic farming. It gets very wet and very dirty. I find it has a useful life of about 3 to 4 years before it starts disintegrating into tiny microfibers.

I called the sustainability officers at the parent companies of each major brand of row cover. Despite the fact that clothing manufacturers have been recycling polypropylene fleece for years, the row cover manufacturers were not aware of any recycling processes available for their fabrics. I called multiple chemical companies specializing in recycling polypropylene and similar plastic materials. Their responses were the same – row cover is too flimsy and too dirty. One company, Arch Polymers, was game to try but would need a very high volume of dry material to make it work. These calls took place in early 2019. Unless something has changed, you should consider floating row cover to be a non-recyclable product also.

Beware of the Waste-to-Energy Distraction

I often get asked, “If we can’t easily recycle agricultural plastic why don’t we at least burn it as fuel?” It sounds like a good idea. Plastic can be burned either directly, as a manufactured solid pellet, or converted into synthetic diesel. But this is highly polluting and misses the big picture. Climate change mitigation is driving a rapid conversion from petroleum-based fuels to alternative energy. Converting waste to energy is, at best, a short-term solution that distracts us from developing a satisfactory endgame for recycling plastic.

Complete Chemical Recycling

The real game changer for plastic recycling may be the development of complete chemical recycling. This would involve processes like pyrolysis to chemically convert waste plastic back into its chemical building blocks of petroleum and naphtha, and then back into virgin plastic resin of any desired formula. In theory, this process would enable the use of plastic feedstock to be used over and over again, just like metal and glass. There are some wicked smart chemical engineers at work right now developing this new plastic Holy Grail, but the process is likely at least 5 years away from market.

Some caveats are in order before we drink from the magic plastic chalice. We still need to make absolutely surethat the plastics we chemically recycle and create are safe for the long-term health of our planet. We still need to get all that waste plastic back into the collection system and not floating in our oceans and breaking down into microparticles. We still need to develop parallel collection, and possibly washing systems, to handle the high volumes of contaminated farm plastic. And we will still need to trust some of the same chemical companies who created the problem in the first place to engineer our new Holy Grail. That’s a lot of big ifs.

What We Can Do

The only way to ensure the future for plastic that we want is to directly create it. In the short term, I encourage each of us to carefully consider what plastic is needed on our farms, and then minimize its use as much as possible. We don’t have the excuse of ignorance – we know most of the plastic goes to a landfill. I now believe that if I can’t verify that my agricultural plastic isn’t going to a landfill then I, as a MOFGA-certified organic farmer, shouldn’t be using it in the first place.

Collected greenhouse plastic baled and ready to ship at the Unity Area Regional Recycling Center in Unity.

Collected greenhouse plastic baled and ready to ship at the Unity Area Regional Recycling Center in Unity. Photo by David McDaniel and provided with the permission of Rick Kersbergen/University of Maine Cooperative Extension

However, it is clear that our collective use of agricultural plastic is too pervasive and too financially imbedded into organic farming practices for the actions of any one farmer to have much of an impact on solving our plastic disposal crisis.

If we want to fundamentally change how we farm with plastic, we will need to rewrite our regulatory framework to force the free market into creating the cradle-to-cradle waste recovery system that farmers and consumers demand. And that will take collective commitment, creativity and bold leadership. Dirigo. We lead. It’s time to start leading ourselves out of this plastic apocalypse and into a better future for the next generation of organic farmers.

David McDaniel co-owns and farms Earth Dharma Farm in Jackson, Maine. Contact him at [email protected].

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