The collection and recycling of crop protection and pesticide containers has exploded from less than 100,000 pounds in the late 1980s to more than 7.3 million pounds last year.
About 30 firms, through the Ag Container Recycling Council, fund pesticide container recycling programs throughout the United States to collect the high density polyethylene plastic containers.
Pesticide containers, because of their contents, can pose an environmental hazard if they are not managed properly.
Farmers, facing growing concerns about the handling of the empty bottles, have sought more options for disposing of the containers, said Yassir Islam, communications director for the council, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.
``They were burying them on the farm, they were sending them to the landfill, or they were using them improperly to store other chemicals,'' Islam said.
Farmers and pesticide producers also saw value in creating a system to address the environmental concerns surrounding the pesticide jugs before the government stepped in.
``There were some fears of legislation,'' Islam said. ``The industry was a little more proactive.''
Don Bradley, vice chairman of the recycling council, remembers a time when concern about government regulation was very real.
``There was pending legislation not only at the federal level but also many of the states,'' Bradley said. ``We were all looking over our shoulder. We fully expected mandatory take-backs and taxes.
``We formed ACRC as an effective way to accomplish what we thought we'd have to do anyway. The ACRC has been so successful in taking single-trip containers out of the environment.''
Handling the empty containers is no small task. Islam estimates there are more than 30 million empty containers produced every year. That's enough to string across the United States more than once, he said.
Containers must be triple-rinsed or pressure-washed before they are collected by recyclers contracted by the council. The recycling council estimates that it captures about 25-30 percent of the containers being produced, Islam said.
``The industry sees this as doing the right thing for the environment,'' he said.
End uses for the containers are limited to nonconsumer products, Islam said. ``We're very certain that there's no damage to people or the environment from using recycled containers,'' he said.
But the industry remains sensitive to people's concerns, so the council directs the plastic's reuse to limited areas, including the inner core of marine pilings, commercial fence posts and drainage pipe.
``It's a great use for the containers,'' Islam said. ``We're being very careful where it goes, restricting its uses.''
The vast majority of the council's $3.5 million budget - 82 percent - goes to pay for recycling programs throughout the United States. The group will pay for collection and recycling of any company's used containers regardless of whether they belong to the council.
Working to create full industry support is an ongoing project of the group, Bradley said. ``We're making a lot of progress there,'' he said.
Along with attracting more companies to help pay for the recycling program, Bradley said the group is looking at creating more efficient ways to recycle and collect the plastic.
While many different-sized bottles are accepted for recycling, the vast majority are between 1 gallon and 21/2 gallons in size, Islam said. Recycling drop-off sites will accept containers up to 35 gallons in size, and some contractors operating the program for the council also will take containers between 35 gallons and 56 gallons.
The empty bottles are inspected when they are returned to ensure that they are properly cleaned, Islam said.
Farmers have grown accustomed over the years to cleaning the bottles correctly, he said. Most sites have acceptance rates of at least 95 percent, and some have acceptance rates of 99 percent.
Some collection sites are operated through public agencies, and many are located at dealers that sell crop-protection products to farmers. Contractors often grind the containers at the collection site for easier transportation, Islam said.
Whether agricultural containers are accepted at landfills for disposal is largely a local issue, Bradley said. Some used containers get mingled in with other types of trash and are accepted. But he believes a tractor-trailer load of the containers would be rejected.
``I think that's very much a case-by-case basis,'' he said.