Farmers already do a lot of recycling, from using manure to make compost to repurposing wooden pallets to fix fencing and even reusing oil from tractors to run heaters.
However, as is the case across the country, plastic waste continues to be an issue for the agricultural industry.
It’s hard to come by concrete numbers, but there’s no doubt that plastic is as common as dirt on farms. It’s used for seed trays, mulch film, water pipes, fertilizer bags – the list goes on.
Gene Jones of Southern Waste Information eXchange based in Florida said a dated study estimated that U.S. agriculture used about 1 billion pounds a year – and that was in the late 1990s.
And, as has been standard practice over the years, most farmers used to send the leftover plastic to the landfill, simply leave it on their land or, most concerning, burn it.
“It’s a problem that we’ve faced for a long time,” Jones told The Durango Herald. “But I think there’s starting to be some culture shift around farmers.”
Indeed, that shift is happening among farmers and ranchers in La Plata County.
About four years ago, La Plata County 4-H launched a project to collect 40,000 pounds of hay-bale twine made of polypropylene, a plastic which takes about 50 years to decompose but is 100 percent recyclable.
Within two years, the group hit that goal. But the program, as well as opportunities for farmers and ranchers to recycle twine, was non-existent for the past two years.
In the spring, Four Corners Back Country Horsemen announced there would once again be twine collection stations at Basin Coop in Durango and the Arriola Coop in Cortez.
Christopher Smyth, a board member for the Four Corners Back Country Horsemen, said it’s standard practice to use the twine to hold hay bales together, then cut it off and throw it away.
This project aims to keep the polypropylene out of the environment and out of the landfill, he said. All twine collected will be shipped to a processor to be turned into pellets and sold to a manufacturer that makes a variety of products.
Since the spring, Smyth said 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of plastic twine have been collected, and organizers hope to collect another 10,000 pounds this winter.
Volunteers will even provide packaging sacks for larger farm operations that produce 500 pounds of twine or more in a six-month period. That way, farmers pack the twine, and volunteers visit the property to pick up the bag.
“We end up collecting more because we come to them,” said Cathy Roberts, president of the Four Corners Back Country Horsemen. “So far, we’ve collected more than I anticipated.”
Roberts said that money gained from sending the plastic off to a processor will be funneled into trail improvement projects on U.S. Forest Service land.
Four Corners Back County Horsemen, over the years, has adopted a number of trails in the area. A few years ago, the group funded a Southwest Conservation Corps team to do trail maintenance on the Colorado Trail.
Smyth stressed that dirty twine cannot be collected.
He said that there’s plenty of twine to collect year-round in the Four Corners, so the group hopes to continue the service indefinitely.
“We’re having success reviving this old 4-H project,” he said. “A bunch of people in the area wanted to start collecting again.”