Farming Magazine - February, 2009


Recycling Ag Plastics

An emerging opportunity for the entire industry
By Kara Lynn Dunn
Photo Courtesy of Bigfoot Balers.
The original Tiger tobacco baler broke down after making only one horizontal bale of condensed greenhouse plastics removed from hoophouses without the plastic touching the ground. A sturdier Big- Foot 400 vertical baler, expected to debut in spring 2009, will similarly pull plastic off greenhouses to make 40-inch cubes.

The Cornell Recycling Ag Plastics Project (RAPP) is developing methods and markets for recycling ag bags, silage and greenhouse covers, as well as other plastics into products such as lumber, fence posts, new ag bags and silo covers, and part of asphalt mix.

Dr. Lois C. Levitan of Cornell University’s Environmental Risk Analysis Program, and RAPP leader, estimates that more than 6 million pounds of used plastic film may be discarded on New York dairy farms each year. That’s 8 pounds per cow, times 776,000 dairy cows.

As of July 2008, some of the plastics that might have been burned, buried or brought to a landfill in New York, have been baled into 40-inch, 1,200 to 1,500-pound cubes awaiting pickup by reprocessors. As part of RAPP, dairy farmers in New York’s six northernmost counties and western New York vegetable growers are piloting recycling efforts.

In October 2008, RAPP announced that North Brook Farms in Auburn, N.Y., would be taking the dairy film baled in those six northernmost counties for reprocessing. North Brook Farms uses the same equipment it uses to recycle rubber into stall mats and other agricultural products to grind plastic.

“We are looking at a slowly phased entry into farm plastics recycling. We have ready markets, but we need to know that we will have enough supply to meet demand and that the farmers will follow best management practices to provide us with readily recyclable feedstock,” says Peter O. Kyle, North Brook Farms owner and former dairyman.

“It should help that a lot of dairy farmers already know us from buying products from us for 20 years. Cornell is taking a good approach to building the infrastructure we need to slowly grow into the development of products and the creation of jobs,” Kyle adds.

North Brook Farms will collect the bales when a full tractor-trailer load of 40 bales is available not only from the northern New York counties, but beyond.

Cultivating the markets

Since first looking at the ag plastics disposal issue in 2002, Levitan has built an “encyclopedia” of contacts and resources to support an ag plastics recycling infrastructure for and in New York.

In addition to North Brook Farms, Levitan is talking with a company in Palmyra, N.Y., that recycles high-density plastics (HDPE, number 2 plastics, e.g. milk jugs, fuel tanks, hula hoops and landfill liners) into construction-use materials.

“RAPP is committed to working with domestic recycling markets because of the environmental and health impacts, as well as economic costs and dubious ethics of shipping scrap plastic halfway around the world to markets in China and elsewhere that thrive on cheap labor,” Levitan says. “We want to limit the ‘transportation footprint’ of waste ag plastics and are excited about the economic development potential of ag plastics recycling within the Northeast.”

The development of the New York-based recycling efforts may help farm plastics users in New England.

“What we really need is market development, and the work Dr. Levitan is doing in developing New York-based markets could provide a regional solution until other states can develop in-state recycling enterprises,” says North- east Waste Management Officials’ Association (NEWMOA) Project Manager Adam Wienert.

With a USDA grant, the nonprofit NEWMOA has contracted with Levitan to provide training to help rural communities in Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont reduce the amount of agricultural plastics being burned, buried and entering the solid waste streams of those states.

Photo Courtesy of Cornell Rapp.
Dr. Lois Levitan, right, and ag plastics recycling enthusiasts stand in front of greenhouse covers waiting to be baled for recycling.

NEWMOA Deputy Director Terri Goldberg says, “Our goal is to stimulate interest in developing the needed infrastructure and markets so that agricultural plastics recycling will take off in the private sector. We are offering training programs largely for farming, state and local agricultural extension, state and environmental agency officials, and other officials to teach proper plastics preparation for baling to meet market requirements.”

NEWMOA is organizing workshops in cooperation with groups such as the Maine Organic Growers Association, Ag & Markets and Environmental Conservation agencies and Conservation and Solid Waste Districts.

Late in 2008, NEWMOA had a grant request pending with the Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education program to expand their recycling project into southern New England states and New Jersey.

Photo Courtesy of Cornell Rapp.
Dr. Lois Levitan, right, presents an ag plastics recycling workshop for greenhouse growers.

Market and legislative influences

Levitan keeps a sharp eye on the market and legislative forces that influence existing plastic makers and the start-up of entrepreneurial recycling businesses.

“Prior to the recent market downturn, the increased price of the raw fossil fuel-based materials needed to make virgin plastic was making plastic manufacturing markets increasingly eager to acquire scrap as feedstock. My hope is that by dealing directly with manufacturers in New York, and because we are not currently looking to sell the plastic feedstock to them, that our markets will continue to take an interest,” Levitan says.

She adds, “The proposed new open burning ban regulations are expected to be enforceable by April-May 2009, and that will help propel ag plastics recycling into a reality. We are pleased to be working with plastics manufacturers to develop best management practices for handling the plastics. Since ag plastics are typically more dirty, dispersed and bulky than most plastic destined for recycling, it is important that farmers follow the best management practices so that plastic manufacturers will be able to use the farm plastics to make new products.

“At the moment, the concept of ‘sales’ does not enter the equation for most ag films, other than greenhouse covers. Any revenue opportunities are eaten up by the costs of collection, cleaning, baling and shipping the plastics. Right now, we are happy to find firms that will take the dirtier waste ag film,” Levitan says.

She notes that while current prices are in flux, two years ago producers in Suffolk County, N.Y., were getting 9 to 10 cents a pound for their bales of the cleaner greenhouse covers.

Photo by Kara Lynn Dunn.
RAPP Capital District Contact David Cox centers a stack of used plastic under the "big foot" that applies 2,400 PSI to squash the plastic into a 40-inch recycling-ready cube. Forty of the approximately 1,000-pound cubes make a tractor-trailer load.

Piloting best practices

Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program, New York Farm Viability Institute, and Resource Conservation and Development and Soil and Water Conservation District leaders are encouraging farmers to learn how to properly handle their used plastics.

Northern New York Agricultural Development Program Co-Chair, and dairyman, Joe Giroux in Plattsburgh in Clinton County says, “The Northern New York agricultural industry will benefit from having all six of our counties as the first to participate in this project. Ag plastics recycling is one more way farmers can take an active role in being good land and water stewards, and at the same time reduce the cost of farming by not paying tipping fees to landfill their plastics.”

RAPP Field Coordinator Blake Putman says, “Dairy and livestock farmers from all sizes of farm operations have become involved in this project. As the dairy educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Clinton County before joining RAPP, I regularly took calls from producers wanting to schedule a baler visit to their farms. They are excited to have a ‘greener’ option for ag plastics disposal.”

Clinton and Franklin county farmers began storing plastics more than three months ahead of the arrival of BigFoot, a modified tobacco baler designed by ag plastics/mulch salesman Dennis Sutton of Bradenton, Fla. The BigFoot being used on northern New York farms is a trailer-mounted, gas-powered, self-lowering-deck model towed by pickup truck. New York is the second state to test the trailer-mounted edition of the baler.

The latest edition of the BF-300 builds the baler right into the deck of the trailer. A 20 hp gas Honda engine and a 20 GPM hydraulic pump creating 2,400 PSI of pressure are the baler’s power sources

The baler-only BF-200 model is attached by three-point hitch to a tractor and powered by the tractor’s hydraulics or a separate power unit.

The New York New York Farm Viability Institute has provided RAPP a grant to help increase the needed infrastructure, markets and farmer participation. Others are helping buy BigFoot balers for their areas.

Clinton County Soil and Water Conservation District (CCSWCD) Manager Steve Mahoney helped secure funding from New York State Sen. Elizabeth Little through the Champlain Watershed Improvement Coalition and CCSWCD to purchase a baler for use in eastern-northern New York.

A pending contract with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will allow RAPP to purchase up to seven additional balers for use in the three RAPP pilot regions and in new areas of the state. The New England states are also looking at opportunities to buy balers.

Separate like plastics, no PVC

Currently, different types of plastics must be separated due to chemical content and physical qualities that affect reprocessing. Putman notes, however, that “most films, such as silage bunk covers and ag bags, can go together in one bale. Bale wrap, bale netting, woven feed bags and twines must be kept separate from these films and from each other.”

RAPP sends product samples to plastics manufacturers for analysis to identify like-kinds. For example, most bunk covers are made from a low-density polyethylene (LDPE), but some include a “sandwich layer” made of a different type of plastic, and net wrap is not all the same. PVC (polyvinyl chloride, number 3 plastic) is not accepted for recycling at this time.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schoharie County Agricultural Team Leader David G. Cox, RAPP’s first Field Coordinator, did not find the need to tie the folded or rolled and flattened bundles. If it is necessary to tie them, strips of the same plastic must be used so that entire bundles can be tossed into the baler.

“If you have questions about what kind of plastics you have, call RAPP for help identifying them,” Cox advises.

RAPP has posted best management practices for handling dairy plastics online at

RAPP’s BMPs have been incorporated into the newest edition of Cornell Guidelines for farmers and in the Agricultural Environmental Management strategic planning options for the state’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

Levitan says, “It is critical that farmers follow best management practices to create bales that the markets will want. This will help establish solid markets as we continue to look for ways to make the process user-friendly for both farmers and manufacturers.”

What about greenhouse and maple plastics?

RAPP has developed BMPs for greenhouse plastics.

Incorporating comments made at baler demonstrations, Sutton is now developing the BF-400 exclusively for recycling greenhouse plastics. The model will have nip rollers, a funnel and a larger catch area to speed up the baling process. Sutton makes balers that can handle greenhouse covers, mulch film, drip tape and nursery pots.

Unfortunately for maple producers, the RAPP team has learned that most recyclers do not want PVC plastics, which includes some maple tubing. Somewhere in RAPP’s future, Levitan expects to talk with manufacturers about ways to use maple industry plastics.

She is also interested to learn more about reclaiming plastics to generate energy.

Watch the Web site at for more developments and best practices updates.

The author is a freelance writer who keeps horses and sheep on a 100-acre farm in Mannsville, N.Y.

Recycling Ag Plastics Contacts

Cornell Recycling Ag Plastics Project (RAPP)

RAPP Regional Contacts:

  • Capital District: David Cox, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schoharie County, 518-234-4303,
  • Northern New York/North Country West: Chanda Lindsay, St. Lawrence/Black River/Resource Conservation & Development, 315-782-7289, ext. 129,
  • Northern New York/Lake Champlain Watershed: Steve Mahoney, Clinton County Soil & Water Conservation District, 518-561-4616, ext. 3,; Anne Barlow, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Clinton County, 518-561-7450,
  • Southern Tier: Diane Fiorentino, Chemung County Soil and Water Conservation District, 607-739-2009,
  • Western New York: Wendy Sanfilippo, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County, 716-450-8309,

BigFoot Balers  

Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Association (NEWMOA) Agricultural Recycling Project