Ag gets greener

Local almond grower creates a way for fellow farmers to recycle ag containers—for free

Bill Graves started Green Planet Plastics, a local nonprofit, in order to recycle ag containers like these.

Bill Graves started Green Planet Plastics, a local nonprofit, in order to recycle ag containers like these.

Photo by Daniel Taylor

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Bill Graves doesn’t fit the profile of a typical recycling advocate. Inspecting the soon-to-be-harvested crop in the almond orchards surrounding his home just a few miles south of Chico with his hired help for the day—his grandson Kaleb—Graves instead cuts the figure of the quintessential Butte County farmer.

But along with producing an annual harvest of nuts and teaching agriculture classes at Butte College, Graves has more recently played an integral role in reducing the amount of plastic ag waste filling up the local landfill and being burned, buried or dumped in Butte and Glenn counties. As executive director of Green Planet Plastics, Graves has implemented a program that allows local farmers and individuals to have plastic containers for pesticides, fertilizers and other agricultural products recycled conveniently and free of charge.

Graves’ interest in retrieving and reusing plastic containers used in agriculture originally sprang from his personal experience as an almond grower. The fertilizers and other products Graves used for his relatively small operation created a pile of plastic waste that Graves wasn’t entirely sure what to do with.

“I called the ag commissioner and he just said, ‘Well, we just crush them and put them in the landfill,’” Graves said. The commissioner encouraged Graves to come up with a program for recycling the containers, and Graves took the challenge seriously. He came up with an idea of putting on a plastic container recycling program at the Neal Road Recycling and Waste Facility near Chico and brought it to the Butte County Board of Supervisors in 2009.

“At first they were reluctant to do so, because they were thinking, ‘Wow, this guy’s got chemical containers and plastics and that doesn’t sound like something we want at the landfill,’” Graves said. “But the problem was, they were already ending up in the landfill. This way they’d be out of the landfill. So they finally got on board.”

After making contact with a plastic granulator service, which shreds the waste plastic into tiny pieces, Graves learned that there was a national program in place for the recovery of these plastics, funded in large part by the companies making the products stored in the containers. The Ag Container Recycling Council (ACRC) is a nonprofit organization that facilitates the collection and recycling of ag containers into new products by providing financial assistance for outreach and education for programs like the ones Graves was looking to start.

In 2010, Graves formed Green Planet Plastics as a nonprofit organization. To date, it has collected more than 600,000 pounds of plastic containers at recycling events at the Neal Road facility and the Glenn Growers rice drying facility near Princeton.

According to Bill Mannel, solid waste manager for Butte County Public Works, Graves’ recycling efforts filled a gap in existing services.

“Its a good program, because it’s a recycling program for nonfood plastic containers, which seem to be the focus for most recycling programs in California,” Mannel said. “We see a lot of material come to the landfill that doesn’t have a program to be recycled.”

Fittingly, the plastic collected at these events often remains in the agriculture industry. Among the products made by ACRC-approved manufacturers are field drain pipes, industrial pallets for ag product packaging and fence posts. The recycled plastic is not, however, used for any type of food container or other products used in the food industry.

Green Planet Plastics is subject to strict EPA regulations for the collection and handling of containers, Graves said. Containers that arrive to be recycled must have the caps and labels removed and be triple-rinsed. But according to Graves, ag producers, even those who may be apathetic when it comes to environmental concerns, have ample incentive to take part in the program.

“Here’s the thing,” Graves said. “Normally, if you take a load of stuff to the dump, they’re gonna charge you $100 or $150 depending on the weight. If you use my program, it’s free. You go into the dump and you don’t even go across the scale. Nobody asks you where you’re from; we don’t care what county you’re from. The material goes to the right place and they don’t have to pay. That takes away a lot of the resistance.”

Graves cites the example of a farmer in a neighboring county who was recently fined $60,000 for burning plastic chemical containers as being additional motivation for farmers to take part in the program.

“They’re going, ‘Wait a minute, if I burn them and throw them away, I could get fined. If I take them to the landfill, it’s still legal but I gotta pay. If I get involved in this program, it’s free,’” Graves said. “That’s the beauty of it: I don’t charge the farmers a thing.”

Graves understands that, for many people concerned about the impact of agriculture on the environment, the use of chemicals themselves may pose more of a problem than the disposal of the containers in which they are stored. But he sees Green Planet Plastics and other organizations as being a pragmatic solution to an existing problem. And he challenges those who are passionate about the issue to turn their words into action.

“You wanna complain? Do something about it, that’s my theory,” Graves said. “And that’s exactly what I did.”