Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Analysis of Agricultural Plastics Recycling for the Banana Industry in the Dominican Republic

Partners’ Farmer-to-Farmer program supports organic banana producers in addressing one of their biggest challenges: the disposal of the plastic bags used to protect the bananas from disease and pests during the growing process. Melissa Kono, a plastic recycling and processing specialist, recently traveled to the Dominican Republic to address this problem. Below are excerpts from her trip report:

Plastic protects bananas from disease and pests
as they develop
Assignment Overview and Observations:
The Dominican Republic is the main exporter of organic bananas in the world. This emphasis on organic and fair trade bananas has encouraged the industry to strengthen environmentally conscience production methods and further address recycling efforts in banana production.

I volunteered with USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer Program from June 29 through July 12, 2014 in the banana producing region of the Dominican Republic to analyze the use of plastics in the banana industry and address ways to recycle the plastic after its use. The Farmer-to-Farmer field staff and I met with the three major banana producers in the region as well as environmental agencies and recyclers. We toured several farms, plastics collection facilities, landfills, and recycling facilities. 

Each of the three main banana producers in the banana producing region of the Dominican Republic have some sort of plastic collection process. Despite these collection efforts, the plastic is not recycled as there is no end-use for it. In addition, there are no well-established means of preparing the plastic for transport, such as baling or compressing. The low-density composition of the bags make it an undesirable product for recyclers who will collect denser plastics such as beverage bottles. Additionally, the bags are fairly inexpensive (about .003 cents per bag) so there is little incentive to reuse them, which would require thorough washing as to not introduce disease from plant to plant.

Potential Solutions and Recommendations for Follow-Up:
Truck used by organic banana producers to collect plastic
I believe there is tremendous opportunity to create subsidiary industries to recycle the plastic into other products, particularly products that can be reused in the banana industry such as pallets, corner posts, and support stakes. Currently, the area of Montecristi has a 73% poverty rate. However, there is high potential for job growth in the area. Producers mention the possibility that the plastic can also be sold, or at least taken by a recycler, to be reused and/or shipped to another country for disposal and/or reuse. A strength of the banana producers is the collection efforts that are already in place. Several of the top producers already have well-established collection methods to collect plastic from the field. Producers also seem eager to convert the plastic into fuel. At least two companies are able to convert plastics into fuel in the United States, and I left contact details with the field staff.

Potential follow-up assignments could focus on:
  • Further research on converting plastics to fuel or for plastic to be sold and/or shipped to recyclers 
  • Addressing logistical issues such as compressing/baling plastic for ease in transport 
  • Conducting a feasibility study of creating a factory to recycle plastic into other products
  • Bringing in a solid waste management expert to analyze the logistical needs of both collection and transport of the plastic

Personal Reflection:
This trip was a wonderful opportunity for me personally and professionally, and a dream come true. I studied economic development in Latin America as a college student, and frequently would do papers and projects on the banana industry. In my current profession, I work with farmers on recycling agricultural plastic. The opportunity to volunteer with Farmer-to-Farmer demonstrated that agricultural plastics recycling is a global concern and that farmers that I work with in a rural county in Wisconsin have the same concerns as those in the Dominican Republic, producing food for the world in environmentally conscience ways.  I am so honored to have been chosen to participate in USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer program, the staff is well organized and the programs and assignments are well thought out. 

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