In The Graduate, Mr. McGuire leans in to Ben Braddock and says, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.”
Clearly, the sage Mr. McGuire was right. Plastics are a massive industry and have become a vital part of many industries, including farming.
In fact, plastic is a huge part of modern agriculture, even for small farms.
According to Penn State Extension, plastics used for agriculture is a multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide. And Southern Waste Information eXchange estimates that one billion pounds of the substance is used in U.S. agriculture annually.
Unfortunately, the use of plastics creates enormous amounts of toxic waste – and state governments and environmentalists have noticed.
New laws and cultural changes are demanding sustainable change from the farming industry.
But the industry and several innovative companies are embracing the ire and working to change the plastic status quo.
And opening the door to some new investment opportunities in the process…
The Offspring of Plastic and Agriculture
Plasticulture is the use of plastics in plant and animal agriculture. These products have numerous purposes, but they all work toward making agriculture more productive and efficient by cutting costs and saving time.
One of the most commonly used types of plastic in farming is black plastic film, referred to by the industry as “road cloth.”
These massive sheets of plastic are used to cover acres of farmland – suppressing weeds and insects, helping to retain heat, moisture, and nutrients, and limiting sunlight, especially in arid regions. China is estimated to be the world’s largest consumer of agricultural plastic films, using 60% of all road cloth.
But plasticulture isn’t just limited to road cloth…
Farms use plastic for everything from seed trays, drip irrigation tape, greenhouse covers, and bale wrap for water pipes and tubing, silage bags, pesticide containers, plastic fertilizer sacks, twine, and… you get the picture.
And I’m not talking exclusively about the mega-industrialized farms. Even small farms with just a few acres are known to spend up to $6,000 on plastic annually in order to stay competitive.
But even though farming and plastics are both benefiting from their marriage, the relationship is getting rocky.
You see, much of this plastic is designed for one season’s use. Afterward, the material either goes in landfills or is burned, sometimes right on the farm’s property!
Plastics have a slow decomposition rate and can emit a menagerie of lethal toxins. All of the waste from farming has caused most states to establish strict laws about how to dispose of plastic in the last several years.
Plus, there’s a steadily growing cultural backlash against unsustainable farming and the buyers of such produce.
It’s these developments that have spurred the farming industry to look at other options to replace plastics. Namely, the need for environmentally responsible disposal alternatives for plasticulture…
So far, the biggest response to reducing farm plastic waste is through recycling. But it’s not easy finding markets for this plastic. The dirt and debris embedded in used farming plastics make it difficult to transport and remove. Not to mention, it’s hard on machinery, and it often contains problematic contaminants and pathogens.
Currently, only about 10% of farm plastics in the United States are recycled.
And, when plastic is recycled, point-source air emissions remain high because of inherent difficulties with large flows of pressurized gases.
Nevertheless, some businesses have made a successful go of recycling plasticulture.
Arkansas-based Delta Plastics – one of the largest recyclers of heavily soiled and contaminated plastic in the United States – recovers, cleans, and processes more than 150 million pounds of plastic material per year. It then produces irrigation polytube and EPA-compliant trash bags from it.
Another company, California-based Encore, makes reusable grocery bags from recycled agricultural plastics. And the timing couldn’t be better, as the state has banned plastic bags in stores.
Other companies are making recycled products for industrial use – like plastic pavers and outdoor building materials. And some are experimenting with turning waste agricultural plastic into fuel oil.
But while recycling does address the plastics pollution problem, it perpetuates the manufacturing and use of plastic. And it doesn’t resolve the issues of hauling the material and the energy used to recycle.
Time to Cut Ties
A more effective means of addressing the problem are alternatives to traditional plastic. The challenge here is to create economical products that are environmentally friendly, but don’t break down in the rain, sun, and heat.
Some companies see the value of rising to this challenge.
Weed Recede, for example, makes waste-free, soil-degradable, weed-barrier mulch bags – a far better alternative to plastic bags used not only on farms, but for household landscaping.
Biolice, a subsidiary of the French group, Limagrain, invented a 100% biodegradable and 100% compostable bio-plastic film produced from cereals.
On top of that, the Biocoagri LIFE project is working on creating a biodegradable sprayable alternative to plastic film, consisting of waterborne natural polymers applied directly onto the soil.
Such products eliminate the cost of traditional plastic sheet removal. And, life cycle analyses show that using bioplastics instead of conventional ones reduces CO2 emissions by 30% to 75%!
Bottom line, the consumption of plastic in farming is changing, whether you’re a tree-hugger or not.
Look out for investment opportunities in disruptive agribusinesses, commonly accessible via venture capital or private equity.