Farmers recycle millions of pounds of plastic

Company turns Minnesota and Wisconsin plastic to park trash bags

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MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota and Wisconsin farms generate 60 million to 80 million pounds of plastic each year but until now had no real options to recycle it. They had to make a choice of paying for it to go to a landfill, burying it on their own land or illegally burning it — none of them, they knew, good for the environment.

An Arkansas company has come up with a solution: In the past two years, it has given more than 4,400 dumpsters to farmers in the two states and then picked up the waste to turn into trash bags that are being used in parks locally.

“Recycling ag plastics is a problem that’s bedeviled me for 20 years,” said Anne Morse, recycling and sustainability coordinator for Winona County in southeastern Minnesota. “There wasn’t a system that I could set up that made sense and wasn’t extremely costly.”

That ended last December, when Winona became the first county in the state to welcome Revolution Plastics, the Arkansas-based company that has been in the plastics recycling business in Southern states since 1996.

Revolution, wanting to expand its reach, set up pilot programs in the Midwest in 2014 and 2015 and initiated a full launch in Minnesota and Wisconsin last year, said Price Murphy, the company’s director of operations.

Farmers who use at least 2,000 pounds of plastic a year can sign up for the program, Murphy said. More than 100 dumpsters will be distributed in Fergus Falls and Buffalo, Minn.

Once farmers drive the dumpsters home, Revolution picks up the plastic from them on a regular schedule, determined by the size of the farms, mostly dairies, and the amount of plastic used.

“I have some farms where I collect as much as every other week, and I have some farms where it’s maybe two or three times per year,” Murphy said. “We try to help as many farmers as possible, large and small farms alike, and we just put them on different route schedules.”

Jeff Beckman, owner of Golden Meadows Dairy, about 35 miles south of Minneapolis, was one of 110 farmers to pick up a dumpster in late May in Goodhue County.

“As I’m feeding the cows each day, I cut off the plastic that I’m feeding off and I put it in the dumpster,” he said. “It’s as simple as five minutes and we’re done.”

With 100 cows, Beckman said he was spending $1,700 a year to have 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of plastic trucked to a landfill, and he now gets it picked up once every eight weeks for free.

“In farming today you have to be very cautious about what you spend, so any time you can recycle or reuse something, it’s just to our advantage,” he said. “It’s also a gain for the environment, so it’s fun when things are a double win.”

Brita Sailer, executive director of the nonprofit Recycling Association of Minnesota, said many farmers in the past 20 years have increasingly turned to plastic covers or bags to store hay and silage — chopped up cornstalks — that are fed to cows. The bags are safer and less expensive than the traditional method of storing the fodder in silos, she said, and they also keep the silage fresher and help it retain more nutrients.

But Sailer said the bags, which can range from 100 to 300 feet long and 6 to 12 feet tall, created a waste problem that the state didn’t have before and there was no way of coping with it other than landfills.

For farmers who use the bags or covers, she said, the amount of plastic used per cow amounts to 15 to 20 pounds per year.

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