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Pennsylvania Seeks Innovators to Help Solve Farm Problems

Pennsylvania, where agriculture is an $82 billion industry, is trying to address an economic challenge that has flown under the radar: the proliferation of agricultural plastics, and the difficulty recycling them.

(TNS) — With every row of crops planted comes stacks of seed containers; every row harvested, a few more yards of silage cover film; every bushel moved, a few more inches of polymer twine.

Pennsylvania, where agriculture is an $82 billion industry, is trying to address one of the economic challenges that has flown under the radar in recent years: the proliferation of agricultural plastics, and the difficulty of recycling them.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has announced a pilot grant program intended to help solve the problem, which like many issues has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“By and large, most of the plastic is not getting recycled, it’s getting landfilled or burnt,” said Justin Geisinger, owner and operator of Ag Plastic Solutions in Franklin County, one of only a handful of agricultural plastics dealers.

Agricultural plastic can include planting trays and packaging, baling twine, and a vast array of plastic films used as silage covers and for other purposes.

The proliferation of the plastics has not been well-tracked, even in the United States; as a United Nations report issued last year noted, “there are few and inconsistent data on the quantities of agricultural plastics used in North America,” with one analysis pegging the volume at a half-million metric tons per year.

“Agricultural plastics are often single-use items that serve a specific, initial purpose, but eventually become a waste product,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding said in announcing the grants, called the Agricultural Plastic Recycling Pilot Program.

Grant proposals submitted to the program should help to identify the gaps in infrastructure and marketability that prevent wider-scale plastics recycling among Pennsylvania farms, according to the Pennsylvania Bulletin, and seek to develop or incentivize ways to fill that need.

The grant program has $1 million available over five years, according to the Department of Agriculture spokesperson Shannon Powers. The program’s impetus was due in part, Powers noted, to the finding by Pennsylvania’s GreenGov Council that roughly 85 percent of plastics are being landfilled or burned.

The basic concept, Geisinger said, is that agricultural plastics are simply expensive to recycle – due to both the cost of getting them from farms to collection points, and the cost of cleaning them.

“It cannot go through the current infrastructure,” Geisinger said – the average company that does residential recycling does not have the facilities to deal with agricultural plastics.

“Your traditional curbside recycling wants nothing to do with agricultural plastics,” Geisinger said. “Agricultural plastic is dirtier, therefore it’s less desirable. Between that and the logistics, it’s what makes it a challenge.”

Some agricultural plastic recycling was financially viable years ago when demand for scrap plastic, and thus prices, were higher. But in 2018, China cracked down on the importation of plastic scrap from overseas, much of which was too dirty to be re-usable and was being improperly disposed of.

Without China’s demand, the relative value of used plastics has declined, leading to a drop in the recycling rate in the U.S. and elsewhere. This was exacerbated by shipping delays and rising fuel costs during the COVID-19 pandemic that have made it more expensive to physically move plastics.

“In the last, say, three to four years, things have really changed in terms of the market value of plastics,” Geisinger said. Recyclers that used to pay farmers for materials are now charging them to take the plastics, leaving farmers with no incentive to recycle.

The market in the U.S. is also highly consolidated – Geisinger is one of just three agricultural plastics scrappers in Pennsylvania, he said.

Geisinger and his colleagues sort and bundle plastics into marketable loads before sending them to cleaning sites. Geisinger knows of only two companies that do such plastic-washing, neither of which are in Pennsylvania. Facilities then render the plastic down into blocks of resin that can be sold, including to China.

Chinese demand for these higher-quality recyclables, as opposed to the quick-and-dirty loads of years past, has spurred an interest in cleaning and processing technology stateside, Geisinger said, but it won’t happen overnight.

“Over time we’re going to see more and more of that development, whether it be an overseas company moving in on an entrepreneur here,” Geisinger said. “But it’s a lot of capital up front.”

“The main thing is getting it clean enough,” agreed Grant Gulibon, an environmental specialist with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

“Anything that helps the farmers be able to defray the cost and maybe save some time in being able to get the plastic in shape” is going to aid in increasing the recycling rate of agricultural plastics, Gulibon said.

Geisinger said he’s talked to state officials about plastic-washing technology and how to attract it to Pennsylvania. A system of collection points for farmers’ plastic waste is an idea that may also be useful, although Geisinger stressed that nothing is definitive.

The application period for grants under the Agricultural Plastic Recycling Pilot Program closes July 8.

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