Plastic irrigation tubing, typically used only for one growing season, represents a major waste stream for farms.
The polyethylene tubing, which varies greatly in size and thickness, is an inexpensive way to irrigate crops. But the tubing, which can snake through miles of farmland, is difficult to use year after year because the material becomes contaminated with soil and vegetation after spending so much time on the ground.
So farmers often throw the pipe away and start fresh with new material the following year.
That means there is plenty of dirty, used PE pipe discarded.
Delta Plastics of the South, based in Stuttgart, Ark., has created a recycling system covering four states - Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Louisiana - to collect and return the used material to its plant, where the company converts the plastic into pellets for use in other industries.
Because of concerns about weather exposure during the tubing's initial use and performance standards for the recycled plastic, the old material is not used to make new irrigation pipe.
Illegal disposal of irrigation tubing is common. Some farmers simply dump the pipe somewhere on their property, according to Charlie Wood, who is in charge of sales and environmental relations for Delta Plastics.
``It's a huge environmental deal to get this poly pipe picked up,'' Wood said.
Double G Farm of Marianna, Ark., is one operation that makes sure its pipe is recycled. Bill and David Gerrard, who own the 4,600-acre operation, have been recycling large amounts of pipe through Delta Plastics for the past three or four years.
``When we get through watering the crop with the poly pipe, we collect it back up and we stockpile it in two different locations,'' Bill Gerrard said. ``We generate at least two truckloads when they come and pick it up.''
The farm, which grows a variety of row crops including cotton, corn and wheat, uses about 120 rolls, or 30 miles, of pipe a year. The PE tubing has several advantages over traditional aluminum irrigation systems, Gerrard said.
``It's way easier to install in the fields,'' he said. ``It's easier to pick back up. It's easier and less expensive to handle.''
Recycling also rids the farm of a waste stream, Gerrard said.
``It will just reuse the product and help clean the environment up,'' he said. ``We don't have it stored on the farm.''
Offering recycling services is a good business practice for Delta Plastics, Wood said. ``To be honest with you, that gets you a ton of sales,'' he said.
An increasing number of farmers don't own the land they farm, and they need an outlet for their used pipe year after year. Farmers who utilize the company's recycling service have to buy their new pipe from Delta.
Delta Plastics operates 104 collection sites throughout its four-state area and will travel about 300 miles to pick up used pipe. Delta sends trucks to each site at least twice a year to clear the material from collection points.
The pipe is returned to Stuttgart, where it undergoes a series of cuts and washes until it is in clean, half-dollar-sized pieces. Those pieces are melted to create pea-sized pellets that are shipped in bulk to other manufacturers, that make a variety of products.
Trash bag makers are a large consumer of the pellets, which also are used to make plastic substitutes where concrete commonly is used, Wood said. Some of the pellets are formed into lightweight bases for air-conditioning units or parking stops.
From 1998 through the end of last year, Delta Plastics recycled nearly 70 million pounds of irrigation tubing.
Water to clean the used pipe is recirculated from a series of ponds at the Stuttgart plant. The weight of recycled pipe loads, before being washed, includes an estimated 25-35 percent soil from the fields. Soil washed away during the cleaning process is allowed to settle into the ponds before the water is reused. The soil periodically is dredged from the ponds and diverted to a local landfill for use as daily cover. Soil also is used to fill in areas where erosion occurs, Wood said.
Delta Plastics recycles the pipe because the company believes it has a responsibility as a supplier to the farming industry.
``We don't claim to be in the business for environmental purposes, but we do claim to be a producer of something that's an environmental problem,'' Wood said. ``We feel like if we're creating the problem, we should have an environmental answer for it.
``We want to sell all the poly pipe we can,'' he said. ``But at the same time, we feel we have to recycle as much of this poly pipe as we can. We realize we have a huge impact on the environment.''