Bales of used plastic mulch and drip tape await transport to a recycling operation.
Bales of used plastic mulch and drip tape await transport to a recycling operation.

Until recently, growers who wanted to dispose of used plastic mulch or drip tape in an environmentally friendly way were out of luck.

“Those materials were either being landfilled or some farmers chose to burn them,” says John Szkolnik, chief executive officer of Recypoly Inc. in Labelle, Fla. “Neither of those disposal methods is sustainable.

“So we were looking for solutions to basically three things. We had to get the material, clean it and produce a marketable product.”

Those three challenges having been solved, Recypoly Inc. plans to open a new recycling plant in Labelle, Fla., before year’s end.

The company already is accepting plastic mulch, drip tape and silage bags from growers and will store it until equipment installation is complete, Szkolnik says.

To participate, all growers need do is separate the different types of plastic mulch, such as standard, metalized or VIF, and call the company for an appointment to deliver it. The company also accepts silage film, greenhouse film and most other LDPE, or low-density polyethylene) plastic film.

Szkolnik says growers still have to pay to haul the material to Recypoly, but they don’t have to pay landfill tipping charges, which can average $40 per ton. So recycling can save them money.

In addition, the company will issue recycling certificates, so growers can note that in sustainability reports required by some buyers and be greener at the same time.

Since spring, growers have already delivered more than 10,000 tons of the material, Szkolnik says.


Part of an overall sustainability culture

Among those delivering to Recypoly is Immokalee-based Lipman Produce, which lays thousands of miles of plastic mulch every year, says Justin Roberson, Lipman’s manager of production systems and sustainability. The past season, the farming operation recycled more than 1,200 tons of plastic mulch, he says.

But recycling is just a small part of Lipman’s overall sustainability culture.

“From a general standpoint, we look at sustainability as an integrated value-based component of the business,” Roberson says. “We build it into our daily operations, and we want it to be part of that culture. So recycling just falls into that.”

Roberson says Lipman is fortunate to be vertically integrated from seed production through transportation logistics. Having that control throughout the value chain provides greater opportunities to minimize inputs and at the same time maximize yield potential and other outputs.


Hurdles to overcome

One of the big hurdles in recycling ag plastic is effectively and economically removing the soil that’s adhered to the film mulch, says Gene Jones, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Southern Waste Information eXchange and founder of the Agricultural Plastics Recycling Conference.

On average, a tomato field may yield 750-1,250 pounds of plastic per acre after the end of the growing season.  But when you account for the 60 percent to 70 percent soil contamination, the net amount of plastic is about 230-250 pounds per acre, he says.

“It’s very deceiving how much soil is there, and soil is extremely abrasive to recycling equipment,” Jones says.

But new technology is allowing a handful of companies to wash and shred the plastic before converting it into a usable product.

“I hope with the new cleaning technologies that are out on the market place right now and some research we are currently doing with regard to leaving soil in the field in the first place, I hope we’ll have a sustainable solution for Florida farmers in the not too distance future,” he says.


Recycling plant should aid growers with sustainability, landfillsImporting European technology

For the past two years, Szkolnik and family members have traveled the world researching and checking out the latest recycling technology and equipment.

“We believe it’s very important that you find the best technology available so your rate of success is usually higher,” he says.

They found it in Europe, Szkolnik says, and they shipped over a load of used plastic mulch to see how it would work. The trial proved successful.

Europe is several years ahead of the United States when it comes to this type of plastic reuse and developing the technology to do so, Szkolnik says.

The family chose Labelle in which to locate because of its location central to the bulk of the state’s vegetable production and ag plastic use, Szkolnik says.

“We looked at several variables,” he says. “We want to make it as well located a facility as possible, so it would be economically feasible for the farmers.”

Szkolnik says he can understand the skepticism among some of the area’s growers, considering the recycling companies that have come and gone in the past.

But he says he and his family are committed to making the Labelle operation successful and have gone so far as purchasing the 13.5 acres on the outskirts of town on which the operation will sit.

Szkolnik also points to the success of the family’s Southeast Recycling Corp., which recycled residential and industrial waste in Miami-Dade and surrounding counties for more than 12 years.

The family sold the company about two years ago and was looking for another niche in which to start a business.

That’s when they found the underserved area of recycling ag mulch and drip tape, which are predominately made from LDPE plastic.


How recycling works

As part of the reclamation process, the plastic is first run through cleaning equipment that uses only water to remove sand, dirt or other organic materials, Szkolnik says. It is then shredded and the resulting plastic flakes fed into an extruder. The results are pellets about the size and shape of a lentil.

Szkolnik says he has already shopped the pellets around and says he’s received enthusiastic responses from several plastic manufacturers who want all he can produce.

Although the pellets aren’t quite as pure as raw material, he says they’re more than adequate for use in several different products. In addition, the manufacturer receives recognition for using a sustainable and recycled product.

At the Labelle facility, all of the wash water will be treated and reused again for cleaning incoming plastic, creating a closed system, Szkolnik says. The firm will only add what is lost to evaporation, making the operation a water miser.

Delivery of the washing and extrusion equipment is expected in late summer and will be installed in an existing 52,000-square-foot building that came with the property.

Szkolnik says the company plans to be fully operational before the end of December.

The plant is designed to handle about 40,000 tons of plastic annually.

To schedule an appointment to drop off ag plastic at Recypoly in Labelle, contact Eduardo at 305-525-8652 or Ronald at 786-303-6256.