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In a seeming reversal of policy, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources is backing a bill that would allow farmers to burn plastics.
By Gabe Rivin
Since the 1970s, Aubrey Raper and his wife, Linda, have run a farm in the small town of Marshall, in Western North Carolina. The two work a five-acre plot amid their 67-acre mountain property.
The Rapers grow organic vegetables. In 1998, to make this kind of farming easier, they began to use agricultural plastics, such as hoop-house plastics and ground covers, which can prevent weeds from growing.
Raper reuses his plastics year after year. But that’s not the case for all farmers in North Carolina. Some farmers need to discard their used plastics. Most of the time, this means sending the plastics to a landfill.
But if a bill moving through the General Assembly becomes law, farmers will have another option: burning plastics in the open air.
A provision included in the Senate’s 2015 farm act, which the full Senate has approved, would allow any farmer to burn polyethylene agricultural plastics. The practice would not require an air pollution permit, and the bill only requires that “the burning is conducted as quickly as possible and in a manner that will minimize total emissions.”
Currently, the burning of agricultural plastics is illegal in North Carolina, and has been for decades.
“The open-burning regulation is one of the oldest air-quality rules that we have,” said Tom Mather, a spokesman at the Division of Air Quality in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “It can include a whole range of air toxins when you burn plastics.”
William Schlesinger, an emeritus professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, echoed Mather.
“Whenever you burn plastic outside of a high-temperature waste-disposal facility, the combustion is inevitably incomplete, so you release a lot of volatile organic carbon compounds,” he said. “Some of those things are not good for humans at any concentration, maybe even carcinogenic.”
These compounds, when exposed to nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, form tropospheric ozone too. This is a “well-known air pollutant and human-health hazard” that worsens asthma and other respiratory issues, he said.
Humans can inhale the pollutants released from burning agricultural plastics, according to the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin, a state that bans the practice. The pollutants released in this process can also settle in soil and rivers, and residues can find their way into subsurface drinking water. Chemical residues can enter the human food chain through crops and livestock, the department says.
North Carolina’s DENR acknowledges these dangers. In a press release from 2009, for example, the department said, “North Carolina law prohibits most open burning because the smoke from outdoor fires can cause serious health problems and pollute the air.”
Which raises the question: Why is the legislature moving forward to legalize the burning of agriculture plastics? And why, even with its own warnings, has DENR’s air department approved the legislative language?
DENR signs off on the proposal
Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Autryville), a primary sponsor of the farm act and a vice chairman of the Senate’s agriculture committee, said he was inspired by regulations in Florida that allow farmers to burn polyethylene plastics.
In an email interview, Jackson noted that companies in North Carolina recycle these plastics. But recycling, he said, can be “practically impossible for most farming operations,” since recycling companies require that the plastics be free of dirt and debris.
“The economics of the situation have led to farmers piling the plastic in huge heaps or sending it to landfills, neither of which is a good long-term solution,” he said.
Jackson said he consulted DENR’s Division of Air Quality, whose staff claimed that agricultural plastics could be safely burned; DENR staff, though, recommended language encouraging quick burning, Jackson said. Jackson noted that some plastics, such as pesticide containers, still may not be burned.
When asked about this legislative language, Mike Abraczinskas, the deputy director of the Division of Air Quality, directed questions to DENR’s communications director, Crystal Feldman.
In email interviews, Feldman wrote, “DAQ’s analysis determined that the emissions would have a de minimis impact on air quality,” based on calculations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. De minimis means a level of insignificance that warrants disregard.
Tom Mather, DAQ’s spokesman, in a separate interview noted that there are some instances in the state when man-made materials, such as plastics, are allowed to be burned. But Mather stressed that these are “controlled settings,” such as medical-waste incinerators, which have technology to control the release of air pollution.
The trouble with recycling
Agricultural plastics can be recycled at numerous locations throughout the state.
Data and map courtesy N.C. Agricultural Plastics Recycling
And in recent years, these plastics have seen a large increase in recycling, according to Bev Fermor, a retired scientist who leads the N.C. Agricultural Plastics Recycling Program, a public-private group that supports plastic recycling and whose members include DENR and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Fermor is a vocal advocate for the recycling of agricultural plastics. Still, she acknowledged that recycling is a relatively minor practice among farmers.
According to her rough estimates, drawn from federal data, North Carolina farmers use 6,000 tons of plant pots and trays each year; 2,800 tons of black mulch film; 1,300 tons of drip tape; and 500 tons of overwintering film. Most of these plastics are made of polyethylene, she said.
In the last three years, farmers have recycled a total of 1,800 tons of plastics, according to Fermor.
Like Jackson, Fermor also acknowledged that dirt and debris can be a problem for farmers who want to recycle their plastics.
“Historically, recyclers don’t like dealing with [soiled] materials,” she said. “They’ve taken it and then found they couldn’t market it or process it because it was so dirty, or had stones in it or even snakes.”
This puts the onus of cleaning the plastic on farmers. Fermor said that though farmers support recycling, that support comes as long as recycling isn’t a greater cost than a benefit.
Raper, the farmer in Western North Carolina, agrees.
“It would be hard to believe that a farmer would pay labor to clean the plastic before it went to recycling,” he said.
Fermor said in some instances, recyclers will pay farmers for their plastics. Her group is also teaching farmers how to minimize dirt when collecting plastics, and they’re working with recyclers to install plastic-washing systems, which Fermor said will likely increase the rate of recycling.
Recycling aside, a “surprisingly good” option is to continue sending plastics to landfills, since they make up a small portion of solid waste, according to Tim Kelley, a professor of environmental health at East Carolina University, and an expert in farm waste.
Kelley, who grew up on a cattle farm in Georgia, said that most farmers are advocates for environmental health.
“They want to protect our environment as much or more than the rest of us, because that’s where their livelihood comes from,” he said.
But farmers are also cost conscious, he said, and have to consider the financial viability of their actions, whether they’re considering recycling or the use of pesticides.