Madeline Uraneck moved to Wisconsin from Oklahoma 50 years ago. Although she is not a farmer, Uraneck said she always paid attention to what was happening in farm fields when driving around the state.
“As you walk through the beautiful farmland, you notice the changes in farming, like hay bales to (round bales) and now silage, especially in these long, plastic-covered rollers,” Uraneck said, “And I was just curious: What happens to the plastic when they’re done using it?”
She submitted her question to Wisconsin Public Radio WHY isconsin. And recycling advocates and experts say the answer isn’t simple.
Melissa Kono is a community development educator in Clark and Trempealeau counties for the Division of Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
She said farmers use plastic sheeting to protect hay and silage from the elements to feed their livestock through winter. Some forms of these plastics include top covers for silage bunkers – think white tarp covering mounds of silage with tires holding the tarp up – long bags that hold long, thin rows of silage and wrap around bales of individual hay.
“Their other option for silage would be a silo and those are very expensive to build,” Kono said. “Having a silage pile makes it easier to access, especially if farmers don’t have a lot of space, or makes it more accessible to feed animals, which saves time and costs. I just think that because farmers are so overwhelmed these days, having plastics to use has probably made it more economical.”
According the State Department of Natural Resources, 15 to 20 pounds of plastic are used per cow each year in Wisconsin. Dairy industry experts estimate that a 300-head dairy farm that uses plastic silage bags can produce up to 6,000 pounds of plastic waste per year, according to the DNR.
Kono said farmers struggled to know what to do when they were done with plastic. Most products cannot be reused as the thin plastic breaks down in the elements. And on the farm, there is no curbside recycling bin that people can just put the tarps in.
“It’s so bulky and it’s dirty. It’s usually dirtier with animal feed and sometimes mud just because it’s on the farm,” Kono said. “There are companies that recycle it, but the transportation costs can be expensive and the very nature of farming, you’re in a rural area, you’re usually not close to anywhere that could accept these types of materials.”
Kono said she started working on the issue of recycling after many dairy farmers asked her what to do with the used plastic. She said some growers put it in their regular dumpsters, but not all landfills accept certain plastics.
“Some farmers are using burning. It’s illegal to burn plastics and other materials in Wisconsin, but it’s so difficult and expensive to enforce it, that some farmers just don’t know what to do with it, so they end up burning it,” she said.
A 2015 survey by DNR and UW-Extension found that transporting plastics to landfill was the most common disposal method, followed by burning.
A Wisconsin company is working to collect used plastics from farms and turn them into new products, including more plastics for use on farms. The company, Revolutionprovides free dumpsters to Wisconsin dairy farms to collect used silage and bunker covers, which are washed and turned into agricultural plastics, trash bags and plastic grocery bags.
“Outside of the Wisconsin region, over the past five years or so, we’ve diverted more than 130 million pounds of these plastics from landfill and burning and landfill to use in other products.“said Price Murphy, Vice President of Strategic Sourcing and Operations for Revolution.
Murphy said they have about 3,200 participating dairy farms in Wisconsin and hope to continue to increase that number. But he said recycling agricultural plastics was not a profitable business at the moment.
“The material is dirty, it has an aroma. We happen to have the technology to use this material, but it’s not really salable outside of our markets right now,” Murphy said. “So to continue to grow agricultural plastic recycling, farmers need to focus on buying from manufacturers who help them recycle.”
He said there were no government grants or programs to help support the expansion of agricultural recycling. And he said it’s often expensive to sort through trash and debris that ends up in farm dumpsters.
Even when a recycling option is available, participating in programs is not always easy for farms.
Haly Schultz and her husband operate a sixth-generation farm near Neillsville, raising dairy heifers for other farms and producing hay, corn and oats. After taking over the farm from her husband’s parents in 2012, Schultz said they went from making small squares of dry hay to making “bales,” where still-moist hay is wrapped in plastic sheets. sealed and fermented to preserve it for livestock feed.
“It doesn’t need those two or three full days of drying, which in Wisconsin can get really tough to have that many days without rain,” Schultz said. “It also provides a fairly superior product in terms of animal palatability, so they tend to clean it better in the winter, they tend to eat it easier.”
To recycle that plastic, Schultz said, they signed up for a Revolution dumpster. But their farm didn’t use it during the summer months when their cattle are out on pasture. So they had to switch to using the company’s “recycling bags,” which hold about 200 pounds of plastic at a time.
Schultz said because the pickup service is free, it’s an inexpensive solution for their farm. But she said it was difficult to find the bags to sell and she had to make a lot of phone calls to stay on as a participant in the scheme.
Ultimately, she thinks farmers would be willing to pay for recycling if it were easier and more accessible.
“We don’t want to find it blowing in the wind and in the woods and on the road and people throwing it behind their backs 40. We don’t want to find that. You know, we’ve been there for a long time transporting it,” Schultz said “If we could have expanded the offerings of what’s allowed to be recycled on the farm, in any way, whatever programs come up, I think a lot of people would join us.
This story was inspired by a question shared with WHYsconsin. Submit your question below or at wpr.org/WHYsconsin and we might be able to answer it.