Bulletin #1075, Tarping in the Northeast: Concerns with Plastic Use
Many farmers are rightfully concerned about the extensive use of plastic in agriculture. Farmers must determine for themselves whether the benefits currently outweigh the risks. Plastic manufacturing, use, and disposal all present environmental and health risks, some of which we are only beginning to understand. One of the best ways to reduce the environmental impacts of plastic tarps is to maximize their longevity and reduce plastic contamination in the field by storing tarps properly and minimizing holes and tears.
Low density polyethylene (LDPE), including silage tarps and greenhouse plastic, are recyclable, but polypropylene landscape fabric is not. Several states in the Northeast have implemented pilot programs for limited agricultural plastic recycling, but there is currently no widespread recycling program for these materials. For recycling success, plastic must be clean and uncontaminated with other materials (e.g. bailing twine). A successful recycling program in Minnesota takes agricultural plastic, including silage bunker covers as well as boat wrap covers. A similar model in Northeastern states may be possible in the future as LDPE recycling capacity increases. It is likely that very soiled tarps will never be acceptable for recycling programs, but many tarps used in the applications outlined in this guide remain relatively clean.
Unfortunately, there is very little information about some of the concerns farmers have expressed related to the potential for leaching from tarps. The toxic nature of PVC is one of the reasons billboard tarps have been disallowed in organic standards, while polyethylene and polypropylene products are allowed.