Managing agricultural plastics
Agricultural plastics or "ag plastics" covers a wide variety of products and plastic types, including materials used in many common household plastic products.
- Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and low linear density polyethylene (LLDPE) film – These plastics are used to make silage and haylage bags, bunker silo covers, greenhouse covers, bale wrap, mulch film and other flexible products.
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE)– A more rigid plastic used in pesticide containers and nursery pots.
- Polystyrene (PS) – Another rigid plastic used in nursery containers and flats.
- Polypropylene (PP) – Used in nursery pots, row covers and woven tarps.
Plastic products are used for an increasing number of purposes in agriculture and at nurseries and greenhouses because of their durability, flexibility and low costs. Dairy industry experts estimate that approximately 15-20 pounds of all types of ag plastics a year are used per cow. A 300-head dairy farm using plastic silage bags may produce as much as 6,000 pounds a year of waste plastic.
In 2015, the DNR, UW-Extension and Organic Valley contracted with the UW-River Falls Survey Research Center to conduct a survey of licensed non-organic dairy producers, certified organic dairies, licensed nurseries/greenhouses and boat marinas. The goal of the survey was to find out the volume, frequency and current disposal methods of agricultural and boat wrap plastic in Wisconsin.
Based on the results, the report estimates that these operations generate 20.4 million pounds of recyclable plastic wrap each year. Please note, however, that due to the low response rate and methodology, results may not be an accurate statistical representation of the groups surveyed.
Ag plastics stakeholder meeting
DNR, with DATCP, UW-Extension and Revolution Plastics, held an Agricultural Plastics Stakeholder meeting in June 2019.
- DNR: Opening Remarks & Facilitated Discussion Questions
- UW-Extension: Cross-Sector Collaboration & Evaluation in Ag Plastics Recycling Programs
- Revolution Plastics: Making Agricultural Plastics Recycling Possible for WI
- Revolution Plastics: Ag Plastic Dumpsters WI County Listing (Active as of 6/5/19)
Legal requirements and environmental impacts
Deciding what to do with old or used ag plastic containers and film can be difficult. Burning plastics and most other garbage - whether in the open or in burn barrels - is illegal in Wisconsin under:
Burning ag plastic can release toxic and potentially cancer-causing chemicals – such as dioxins and furans – into the air, where they can be inhaled by humans and animals and deposited in soil and surface water. Residue from burning contaminates the soil and groundwater and can enter the human food chain through crops and livestock. In addition, certain chemicals released by burning can accumulate in the fats of animals and then in humans as we consume meat, fish and dairy products. Because agricultural burning often occurs near food sources, it is particularly important to reduce this health hazard to food production.
Unburned portions of the plastic become litter on the ground and in lakes and rivers. As it disintegrates, animals may eat the plastic and get sick. Larger pieces of plastic can become a breeding ground for diseases, such as by trapping water that provides habitat for mosquitoes.
Handling options: recycle or landfill
While there are currently few recycling options in the upper Midwest, there are well-established recycling markets in other parts of the country and we anticipate that there will soon be infrastructure for collecting and reusing these valuable plastics in Wisconsin. Plastic that can't be recycled must be landfilled.
For a summary of disposal options, see Don't Burn Agricultural Plastics
Take used containers with leftover chemicals to an agricultural “Clean Sweep” site or event in your area. Clean sweeps will accept containers with used or unwanted pesticides and farm chemicals. For empty jugs and drums, check with the pesticide dealer or farm supply for recycling information.
To see when a Clean Sweep event will be held in your area and learn more about what is accepted at Clean Sweeps, visit the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection's Clean Sweep page
The Ag Container Recycling Council (ACRC), a national product stewardship organization, provides additional information and options on where and how to recycle empty containers.
Bags and other plastic film
In Wisconsin and other parts of the country, options for recycling silage bags, bale wrap, bunker silo covers and other plastic films are starting to emerge. The biggest challenge in recycling these materials is cleaning, collecting and transporting the film, which can then be processed and used in products such as plastic lumber and garbage bags. Recycling options are also developing for nursery pots and other more rigid plastics. Ask your suppliers about recycling options and let them know you would like to be able to recycle your used plastics.
For now, send any plastics you cannot recycle to the landfill, rather than burning or burying them on your land.