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Lenny Merculdi and Blake Putnam fill the "Bigfoot" with used plastics. Photo: David Sommerstein
Lenny Merculdi and Blake Putnam fill the "Bigfoot" with used plastics. Photo: David Sommerstein

Story 2.0: More farmers recycle ag plastics

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Four years ago, state environmental officials made it illegal to burn trash and other waste anywhere in New York. That meant the end of the burn barrel, then a common sight across the countryside. Burn barrels were a major source of cancer-causing dioxin and other toxic chemicals in the air.

The burn ban also meant farmers could no longer burn the agricultural plastics that have become ubiquitous in farming. Trucking them to a landfill is the most common, but expensive, alternative. But more and more farmers are recycling them.

Our ongoing series, Story 2.0, checks back in on stories from the past.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

When I visited Dale Tetreault’s 500 cow dairy in Champlain in 2008, a year before the burn ban took effect, recycling ag plastics was practically unheard of. Those marshmallow-looking bale wraps you see on every field, the huge black plastic tarps that cover feed bunkers - that was all either landfilled or burned.

But a group of dairy farmers in Clinton County, including Tetreault, were trying something new. They bought a machine that compresses all that dirty, muddy plastic into a big brick so it can be recycled. They called the machine Big Foot. Here’s a chunk of my story from 2008.

Bigfoot! Photo: David Sommerstein
Bigfoot! Photo: David Sommerstein
Excerpt from 2008 story:

Big Foot is a portable press that crushes used plastic and ties it up in bales.

TETRAULT: Quite an interesting contraption, that’s for sure.

Tetreault’s been saving up dirty white plastic for a couple months here in a back barn.  It’s the first time his farm’s using the plastic baler…

MAHONEY: Alright, we ready to try this?

That’s Steve Mahoney of Clinton County’s Soil and Water Conservation District.  He got a grant to buy Bigfoot for $33,000.

Mahoney and some farmhands stuff the plastic into the baler, then a hydraulic press crushes it down.  That makes room for more.  Mahoney teaches the farmhands to operate it.

Cornell Cooperative Extension dairy educator Blake Putman lends a hand too.  She and Mahoney have brought the Bigfoot baler to nine farms so far.  She says the goal is for farmers to take over.

PUTMAN: The hope is to have the farmers take it from farm to farm, like we’ll leave it here, and the farmers will come pick it up and take it to the next place.  It’ll be their thing in time.

The plan is to recycle the plastic.  It could be made into plastic lumber, road filler, plastic shingles, or industrial uses. 

But that’s a work in progress too.  Lois Levitan directs the statewide Ag Plastics Project at Cornell University.  She says New York needs to develop a system for collecting the plastic and making sure it’s clean enough to entice plastic makers.

LEVITAN: Markets want to know that there’s a certain quantity of product at a certain level of quantity and they’re going to become increasingly interested when they know there’s a steady stream.

End of excerpt

OK, so here we are back in 2013. How did they do?

Well, there are 10 Bigfoot-style plastic balers recycling plastic from a hundred farms across the state. And Nate Leonard with the Ag Plastics Project at Cornell says New York farmers are recycling about 5% of their plastic.

LEONARD: That doesn’t sound like a big number, but if you consider that the general public is in the 7 or 8 percent level, in just a few years, we’ve made good progress with farms and going to make a lot more in the next few years.

As his colleague Lois Levitan had predicted, Leonard says the biggest challenge has been selling the recycled plastic, but they’ve been making steady progress.

LEONARD: There’s probably better than a dozen cities in North America now that have our recycled ag plastic sidewalks.

Leonard says the Ag Plastics Project is now working with private haulers and county transfer stations to find more ways to get ag plastics out of the landfill and into the recycling stream.

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