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Plastic Takes the Place of Hay Barns
Northeast Environmental Hub
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With few options for recycling some farmers end up burning the plastic or plowing it into the ground.


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3:29 minutes (4.18 MB)
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Plastic is used in more and more products, and has become essential even in bucolic settings, like farms. Farms and nurseries in the region are using so much plastic, thousands of pounds every  year,  that they're having a tough time getting rid of it. As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, Amy Quinton of New Hampshire Public Radio reports.

Dairy farmer Tim Toule has about 80 cows on his farm in Loudon, New Hampshire, just north of Concord. Feeding them requires 150 acres of hay and corn, and a convenient way to store all of it. For Toule, like many other farmers, that means plastic.

“These are double wrapped ones there’s two layers of this on them,” said Toule.

Toule tears off plastic from a 56 pound roll that he uses to cover his round hay bales. Next to his bales is a huge machine that spits out silage into what are called ‘ag bags’.

“See the idea of this here is to keep the air out of your product. Once air enters it you get molding and spoilage and then it’s no good,” said Toule.

Farmers used to store hay in silos or barns. Now it’s encased in plastics to protect it from moist weather in the Northeast. The ‘ag bags’ are about eight feet in diameter and 200 feet long. They look like giant white earthworms lying in Toule’s fields. It adds up to a lot of plastic every year.

“Typically I probably use about a thousand pounds a year, between my bales and my bags,” said Toule.

Because some of that plastic can be dirty or torn, it’s hard for Toule to reuse it, or to find a recycler who will take dirty plastic. He says he has only one way to get rid of the bags.

“We take them to the town dump,” said Toule.

Farmers all over the region are facing the same problem.

So are nurseries and garden centers, which are saddled with plastic greenhouse covers, trays and pots. Not far from Toule’s farm, Doug Cole operates a garden center and a nine acre nursery. He estimates his company goes through about a half million plastic flower pots a year, made from polypropylene, one of the less common plastics.

“It’s tough to get someone to want to use it and recycle it, as far as I know all the people that are interested in recycling it are in the Midwest.”

Cole says he’s found just one company out of Michigan that’s willing to pick up and recycle his flower pots.  But only when he has a full truckload. Cole says most garden centers, even the large ones, end up taking their pots to landfills.

Landfills can be a long distance in some states, costing farmers up to a thousand dollars to truck plastics. And that’s if the plastics are accepted. Cole says some landfill operators won’t even take the larger pieces of plastic like greenhouse covers and ‘ag bags’.

“They don’t want to deal with this big bundle that we create. No matter how much we fold it up, it’s still not neat so they need to get rid of that bulk, said Cole.

In order to recycle the material most processors want it neatly baled, which requires expensive machinery.

Lois Levitan is Director of the Recycling Ag Plastics Project at Cornell University. She says the problem leaves farmers with little choice for the plastics.

“In many states whether it’s legal or not, they’re either burning them in an open field, or they’re plowing them into the ground, or just sticking them in the woods,” said Levitan.

While it’s illegal in most Northeastern states to burn in open fields, only recently was it banned in New York. Levitan says farmers were burning the plastic, which releases toxins in the air. She’s hoping to prevent that, by working with states to set up recycling systems.

But the bigger challenge is finding enough of a market to recycle the soiled plastic into new products, like decking or road filling.

The Northeast Environmental Hub is part of NPR's Local News Initiative

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