After the packaging, construction, automotive and electrical sectors, agriculture is a significant consumer of plastics. The key driver for market growth is increased emphasis on global agricultural output due to the rising food demand of the ever increasing population. Plastic agricultural film for silage, mulch and greenhouse applications has made substantial contribution to increased agricultural output and productivity. Plastic films have also enabled the extension of cultivation in terms of the growing season and the location through the use of protective mulch and greenhouse films. The growing use of plastics in agriculture has led to:
* Development of more efficient production methods
* Increase in volume of crops grown
* Improving crop yields
* Soil protection and crop preservation
* Improved storage methods
* Reduced energy and water requirements
* Reduced use of pesticides and fertilisers
Experts estimate that US agriculture alone uses about a billion pounds annually. This includes films used for mulch, greenhouse covers, and to wrap bales, tubing and pipes, silo bunker covers, silage bags, bale wrap, greenhouse covers, haylage covers, row covers, and mulch film. It also includes nursery containers, pesticide containers, silage bags, storage covers, twine and more. Plastic films laid down on planting rows also helps keep fertilizer from running off fields when it rains, while plastic mulch films helps suppress weeds. Farmers in cooler regions use plastic to enhance warmth, while in the southern US farmers use plastic to cool soil and plants.
Players in this sector face challenges with many conflicting trends. While population growth and rising per capita calorie intake demands greater food production; the volume of farmland and number of farms is declining. While plastic films can undoubtedly contribute to improved efficiency and output, growing concerns about film waste and disposal is leading to growing interest in the use of biodegradable materials.
Historically, discarded agricultural waste has been taken to landfills or been burned or buried, often on farm property. But most states have enacted rules against outdoor plastics burning, and this has spurred interest in other options. One method is trying to use less plastic by extending use through more than one growing season. Some growers can get two seasons out of one set of plastic mulch films by reusing with a different crop.
Instead of thin film that are difficult to reuse, many are switching sturdier road cloth that will last for several seasons for weed suppression and to retain moisture and heat.
By far the biggest opportunity to reduce farm plastic waste, however, is through recycling. Currently only about 10% of farm plastics are recycled. Increasing that number will depend on making drop-off more convenient and expanding options for giving plastic a second life. While collection for recycling is one challenge, preparing and processing agricultural plastics so they can be recycled and finding a market for the many kinds of agricultural plastics add even more complexity. A big issue in recycling agricultural plastics is dirt and debris. There can also be concerns about transporting contaminants such as pathogens with that debris. Originally thought to have no markets, plastics used in agriculture has also found buyers -
* Manufacturers of plastic sidewalk and paving materials
* Trash-can liner bags
* New drip tape
Another solution some companies have been experimenting with is turning waste agricultural plastic into fuel oil.
The upside of using this lightweight plastic agricultural film is that it can be more convenient and economical for farmers with short term storage requirements; the downside is that there is a noticeable increase in the volume of LDPE agricultural plastic film waste being landfilled or burned, either on the farm or at local waste management facilities. OCCA is the local outreach coordinator for the state wide Recycling Agricultural Plastics Project (RAPP) based out of Cornell University in New York state. Since 2009, RAPP has helped recycle more than one million lbs of used plastic that would have otherwise gone into landfills or been disposed off on farms. Recycled agricultural plastics have been used to make diverse products including sidewalk pavers, plywood and lumber, oil and more. Recycling agricultural plastic saves money and protects the environment. Landfill fees are costly, and the bulky plastic doesn’t decompose well in a typical landfill environment. Open burning of plastic is illegal and releases toxic chemicals that can have long-term impacts on health and the environment. Recycling is the best option for dealing with plastics.
A survey of farmers was asked what types of films were used, how much was used, how dirty the film was after use, how it was currently being disposed of, and if farmers were interested in participating in a collection program. A combination of efforts is suggested:
First, farmers are encouraged to practice waste reduction and revert to more durable and traditional means of storage whenever possible.
Secondly, ways to make recycling viable and economical for the farmers using these materials need to be found.
Finally, the barriers to effectively managing LDPE agricultural plastic film need to be eliminated--this includes finding cost-effective ways to conveniently collect, clean, and store the materials, and finding end markets for the recycled product
Source Courtsey: Elizabeth Grossman in Ensia