Recycling Agricultural Plastics as a Means of Reducing Dioxin Emissions and other Environmental/Health Risks
CALS Impact Statement
Over the past several decades, disposable plastics have become ubiquitous in all sectors of agriculture. With few options for off-farm disposal, used ag plastics are often burned in open fires, releasing levels of dioxins, heavy metals and particulate matter that create serious health risks.
The overarching goal of the Recycling Ag Plastics Project is to contribute to the development of a nationwide sustainable infrastructure for collection and pollution-preventing disposal of the throwaway plastics used in agriculture, particularly film products (e.g., the dairy bags, bunker silo covers, and balage wrap used to exclude oxygen from stored forage; irrigation drip tape; greenhouse covers; mulch and fumigation films; tarps; bird and bale netting; seed, feed and fertilizer bags). By recycling, agricultural plastics are moved off-the-farm for disposal, reducing environmental and health risks from on-farm open burning and dumping while promoting life cycle stewardship and rural economic development.
Plastics substitute for the longer lasting materials previously used in agriculture because they cost less, are safer and more efficient. With few options for off-farm disposal, many farmers burn the used plastic, let it blow around, or bury it on-farm. Open burning and on-farm dumping are prohibited in many states and other countries, but are permitted in NYS. It is estimated that plastic wastes are burned in open fires on half of NYS dairy farms. Virtually no one in politics or on the farm is satisfied with this situation. There is widespread concern that when left in the field, film and twine clog water channels, entangle equipment, create a choking hazard for livestock and wildlife, and reduce aesthetic and tourism appeal. Low temperature open fires release dioxins, heavy metals and particulates at a far higher rate per mass of material burned than are released with controlled incineration. US EPA and similar environmental agencies worldwide are concerned about human and animal health impacts because meat, dairy and other foods are the primary route of exposure to dioxins in the US. Release of dioxins near the base of the food chain creates health risks at home and raises potential barriers for export. Recycling is a viable alternative that will typically reduce costs to farmers who now haul their used ag plastics to a landfill. Furthermore, fossil fuel resources will be conserved by recycling or converting the embodied energy in plastic to fuel or concentrated energy.
Grassroots concerns about air pollution from open burning inspired a group of Cornell faculty, extension educators, environmental health advocates, farmers, solid waste and recycling coordinators, regulators, and entrepreneurs to begin working together to investigate feasibility of recycling waste ag plastics and explore how they can be re-processed to benefit the health and pocketbooks of farmers and others in rural NY. In 2006 the Recycling Ag Plastics Project (RAPP) organized a week-long demonstration tour of agricultural film baling equipment, stopping at nurseries, dairy farms, and the NYS Empire Farm Days. In addition to publicizing the recycling concept and BMPs for handling ag plastics, we conducted research on baling efficacy. We developed and pilot tested the Agricultural Plastics: Use and Disposal Survey to quantify and benchmark usage and the problem of improper disposal. RAPP is cultivating potential recycling markets, prioritizing domestic re-manufacturers of products that could best utilize these typically dirty used materials. We are working with these markets to overcome the inevitable stumbling blocks. RAPP associates participated and organized workshops across the US, primarily in NYS and New England; advised legislators, agencies and other decision-makers in NY and beyond; and expanded the RAPP website, which remains a key portal to an array of resources relating to agricultural plastics recycling (environmentalrisk.cornell.edu/agplastics).
With a recycling infrastructure in place, this project will conservatively reduce dioxin emissions from NYS dairy farms by 20 mg TEQ per yea, assuming a 20 percent capture rate. If the 10,000 lb of film collected during the Summer 2006 Demonstration Baling Tour were recycled, this small research pilot alone reduced dioxin emissions by 0.3 mg TEQ.