This article was originally written by Partners of the Americas.
Based on the priorities of the USAID Mission in the Dominican Republic (DR), Partners of the Americas’ 2013-2018 DR Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program is focused on “increasing the resilience of vulnerable populations and organizations to the impacts of Global Climate Change along the Yaque del Norte Watershed.” Much of the work has concentrated on issues associated with water resource management, such as irrigation and erosion control. However, in recent years, waste management has also become a concern, as waste management and recovery are important components of sustainable agribusiness operations. In particular, the management of plastic waste has become an issue since the banana industry began using disposable plastic bags to protect the crop from pests and during the production process.
This low-cost practice has been shown to increase yields, improve product quality, and reduce the need for pesticide application. Appropriate waste management systems, however, have not kept pace with the increased use of disposable plastics in banana production in the DR. This has resulted in the accumulation of plastic waste on banana plantations. Moreover, because the plastic bags are made of a low-density plastic, they are less desirable to recyclers than other forms of plastic and there is not much of a market for them. Because end-uses for the plastic have not been well-established, the plastic has been left to sit in collection areas at the cooperatives and often ends up in landfills where it is burned. Burning the plastic releases carcinogenic toxins and the plastic does not fully burn, leaving behind a melted waste product.
To address this challenge, “management of plastic materials on plantations” was identified as a training need for F2F and hosts requested assistance in identifying recycling options for plastics and/or economically viable alternatives to the use of plastics in banana production. In response to this need, F2F sent two experts in agricultural plastics recycling from University of Wisconsin - Extension—Melissa Kono and Joe Van Rossum—to the Mao Region of the DR to explore alternatives to the use of plastic bags and provide recommendations on the management of plastic refuse on banana plantations.
In 2014, Kono spent two weeks in the DR and during the visit, she and F2F field staff met with the three major banana producer cooperatives in the region as well as environmental agencies and recyclers. In addition, they toured farms, plastics collection facilities, landfills, and recycling facilities. It became apparent that due to the low-cost and high-efficacy of the plastic bags, there were no clear, cost-effective alternatives. The question quickly became how to best consolidate the plastic bags and recycle them through an in-house, domestic, or export operation. Following are highlights from the recommendations Kono shared:
Carry out a feasibility study of creating a factory to recycle plastic into other products.
- Determine needs of producers in managing the plastic pre-transport.
- Address logistical issues such as compressing/baling of plastic for ease in transport.
- Research opportunities for plastic to be sold and/or shipped to recyclers.
In the fall of 2015, Van Rossum traveled to build on Kono’s assignment and recommendations by helping banana producer cooperatives improve their recycling collection systems, explore the development of an in-house multi-cooperative plastics recycling facility, and investigate domestic and foreign recycling markets. In preparation for his trip, Van Rossum met with Kono before traveling to develop a “situational analysis.” In an interview, he noted that this conversation provided valuable information about the context for his assignment that he could not have learned from Kono’s trip report alone. While in the DR, Van Rossum assessed the feasibility of a multi-cooperative recycling facility that could convert the plastic bags into other useful agri-plastics. He determined that due to the scale of the plantations and the low-density of the plastic bags, the cooperatives did not collectively produce enough plastic waste to justify investing in a shared recycling facility. The focus of his trip then became the identification of potential markets for the used plastic bags.
Van Rossum’s most productive meeting was with Javier Fernandez, a domestic plastics recycler. Fernandez confirmed some of the challenges identified by Kono, noting two problems in particular: (1) high transport costs from Mao to the recycling the facility near Santiago made bag recycling cost inefficient, and (2) the low density of the plastic bags contributed to this inefficiency and also caused them to jam the recycling equipment. These insights informed Van Rossum’s recommendation for the cooperatives to “utilize hand-operated baler to compact plastic film after removing from bananas” and to reduce to plastic collection from weekly to biweekly. Together, compaction and less frequent collection could increase product density and decrease transport and labor costs, increasing the financial viability of the banana agri-plastic recycling.
By 2016, cooperatives had begun implementing Van Rossum’s recommendations and are now working with Javier Fernandez to recycle the plastic bags. This is a big step forward in waste management in the banana industry in Mao. But this story not only represents successful implementation of volunteer recommendations, it also demonstrates the value of developing and sequencing strategic volunteer assignments that build on each other to move a problem from diagnosis to strategy exploration to implementation. Kono and Van Rossum had the unique advantage of having worked together in on agricultural plastic recycling in Wisconsin prior to their involvement with F2F. As such, their pre-existing professional relationship enabled them to add an additional level of communication and coordination between their volunteer assignments, which help provide valuable context for Van Rossum. This shows how it can be advantageous to F2F to facilitate closer coordination across volunteer assignments and increase program impact.