By Catherine Clabby

For most people in farming with a bulging to-do list, rain is a disruptor. Not for Walter Adams this week in Lenoir County, where he hosted a pesticide drop-off event.

Farmers and others were urged to bring unneeded pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to a spot in South Kinston. People expert at safely disposing of the chemicals took them off their hands for free, no questions asked.

Rain it turns out is good for such business. Adams and his team collected 8,629 lbs of unwanted chemicals, beating a 2005 record of 6,014 pounds in the same county.

“In the rain, farmers can’t get out to the fields,” said Adams, an agriculture and natural resources technician with North Carolina Cooperative Extension. “It’s a good day to clean out the farm shed.”

photo shows untidy and dirty buckets and pesticide containers in a dark shed
Photo credit: NC Cooperative Extension

Federal figures published in 2014 are dated, but they show that U.S. farmers used 516 million pounds of pesticides in 2008, a decrease from 632 million pounds in 1981. The decline is attributed to the more efficient use of chemical agents, integrated pest management practices that deploy more than chemicals against insects, and expanded use of genetically engineered crops resistant to some pests.

Nonetheless, farmers often find themselves with potentially toxic products they will never use shelved and stacked in storage sheds. In 1980, North Carolina was first to launch a statewide pesticide disposal assistance program to divert such compounds from where they are not permitted, including sanitary landfills, private land or waterways.

The Pesticide Disposal Assistance Program has disposed of close to three million pounds of pesticides since it started, said J. Derrick Bell, who leads the program within the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services program.

This diversion is vital because some pesticides, in the right concentrations, can be harmful to people and wildlife when released into the environment.

Every other year

With help from Cooperative Extension and sometimes from county government staff members, Bell’s program funds the pickups in most counties once every two years. (A schedule of upcoming drop offs is here.) The primary users are farmers, but all citizens are encouraged to bring unused pesticides.

What arrives is varied. Drop offs accept some now-banned chemical relics including products dating to the 1940s or containing unpermitted ingredients related to the Vietnam War-era herbicide Agent Orange or DDT.

photo shows men gathered around the back of a pickup truck filled with plastic buckets and bottles
Walter Adams and his team from the NC Cooperative Extension collect pesticides from Lenoir County farmers this week. Photo credit: NC Cooperative Extension

“We’ve had people wonder whether they want to turn in to the state products that have been banned for years. They didn’t want to get in trouble,” Bell said. “But we’re not a regulatory program. We try to help people get rid of problems.”

Frequently drop offs collect full pesticide containers that farmers bought but never opened after switching crops in their fields. Half-used containers are common too, with farmers reluctant to fight stink bugs, chickweed or anything else with a product that might be expired or accidentally contaminated.

Photo credit: NC Cooperative Extension

“Chemicals are expensive but crops are expensive too,” Adams said.

Bell’s office contracts with the hazardous waste management outfit ECOFLO in Greensboro to safely cart away and pack whatever gets left behind. Once packed, the refuse gets shipped to a specialized hazardous material incinerator in Ohio for disposal, he said.

In 1999, the Pesticide Disposal Assistance Program collected 122,783 pounds and 39 drums of pesticide waste, with 19,404 pounds and four drums of material damaged by Hurricane Floyd flooding. In recent years the program has collected about 140,000 pounds of packaged pesticides each year, Bell said.

Russell Williams manages multiple farms in Lenoir County. He used a flatbed to carry the unwanted chemicals he hauled to Kinston on Tuesday.

While he didn’t want to get into specifics, Williams said some of what needed disposing of was half-used containers.

“You can’t carry it back and get a credit for it,” he said. “You need a place to dispose of it properly.”

If a drop off was held in his county each year, he said, he’d use it every time.

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Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...