Jan./Feb. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Tomas Ovalle and courtesy of A&J Industrial, Command Packaging and California Strawberry Commission
Plastics used on the farm are 'upcycled' into everyday products
More online: Wrap it up!
Todd Hirasuna stands near the lay-flat tubing used to move water in his vegetable fields. Once the tubing is worn, he delivers it to be recycled and made into fashion items.
Fresno County fruit and vegetable farmer Todd Hirasuna feels right at home wearing flip-flops in addition to heavy work boots. That's because his sandals are made from recycled farm products—specifically, the lay-flat irrigation tubing used at his family-owned Sunnyside Packing Co. in Selma.
For years, Hirasuna paid to have heaps of the worn-out tubing, a durable type of hose used to irrigate his crops, transported and disposed of in the local landfill. He then connected with A&J Industrial, a company, also in Selma, that specializes in recycling agricultural plastics. Owners Heather and Josh Carpenter had a mission: to find a way to repurpose the tubing material, which consists of rubber, polyethylene and nylon fibers woven together.
"Lay-flat tubing is the one product that can't be (traditionally) recycled because of the way it is manufactured. You can't break down the components, so it goes directly to the landfill," Heather Carpenter said. "In 2009, a grower brought in lay-flat tubing and said, 'If you can do something with this, you can probably get it from a farm because there is an abundance of it and it is so expensive to get rid of.' I looked at my husband and said, 'I'm going to make a handbag.'"
Heather and Josh Carpenter, owners of A&J Industrial and Landfill Dzine in Fresno County, "upcycle" irrigation tubing used on farms into eco-chic designs.
Field to fashion
Carpenter's vision to "upcycle" the tubing into fashion is now the couple's second business. Their Landfill Dzine creates one-of-a-kind products including handbags, totes, belts, flip-flops, bracelets, dog collars and other items sold at their store and at specialty boutiques across the nation.
"The material only comes in green and blue and the other side of the green is black, but everything looks different depending on how long the hose has been in the field," said Carpenter, who believes A&J Industrial is the first to recycle the stubborn material. "Some of it looks tie-dyed and some camouflaged, so it makes it totally unique. The bag you buy is not going to match the one you bought your mom."
The tubing is delivered to A&J Industrial and affiliated company Landfill Dzine, which then cleans the material and ships it overseas to be sewn into handbags, belts, flip-flops and other fashion items.
Alyssa Smith of Fresno is a fan of Landfill Dzine and has only great things to say about its field-to-fashion items.
"I have all kinds of their handbags. They are so eco-chic. But I really love their flip-flops. The sole of the shoes is more of a plastic instead of a foam, so it wears down much slower," said Smith, who owns several pairs. "I like that they are taking the materials and repurposing them."
Hirasuna is also sold on Landfill Dzine's eco-products and explained that he and other growers gladly deliver the used tubing to A&J Industrial. As an irrigation hose, the material usually lasts about three years on the farm before it needs to be replaced.
"A&J has taken something that previously only occupied a landfill and is doing something productive by making a wearable product," said Hirasuna, who also wears the company's belts. "What Heather is doing has enabled us to be less dependent on taking the material to the landfill."
When A&J Industrial receives the discarded tubing, which comes in various shapes and sizes, it strips both sides and cuts the material to length, depending on what it will be made into. The material goes through a two-phase cleaning process and is then dried, rolled and shipped overseas, where it is manufactured into fashion products.
"We've diverted 10 million pounds of this tubing out of the landfill," Carpenter said. "We don't want to see all of this material go into the landfill; we just want to be able to put it to good use."
Alyssa Smith tries on fashion accessories—made from recycled irrigation tubing—at Landfill Dzine in Selma.
In the bag
On a larger scale, reusable bag manufacturer Command Packaging opened Encore Recycling in Salinas in 2013 to partner with local strawberry growers and other farmers to collect, wash and recycle more than 100 million pounds of agricultural plastic each year.
With the plastic diverted from the landfill, Encore creates recycled plastic bags and reusable bags called SmarterBags for the California grocery market.
"The reusable bags that we are manufacturing are made from recyclable, reusable plastic film, and if they are reused four times, they've offset the carbon footprint," said Aviv Halimi, general manager of Encore, adding that SmarterBags are engineered for 175 uses. "The bags can be any color or any variety of prints."
The company also takes the concept to the next level and recycles worn SmarterBags into new bags.
Encore Recycling in Monterey County creates reusable SmarterBags from agricultural plastic, such as that used in area strawberry fields.
Among strawberry farmers, agricultural film is known as plastic mulch and serves several important functions on the state's 40,000 acres devoted to growing the berries, according to California Strawberry Commission spokesperson Carolyn O'Donnell. The plastic mulch separates the berries from the soil, reduces the amount of damaged fruit and maintains the integrity of the raised bed for a year, despite traffic from people and machinery. It also reduces evaporation and holds moisture in the soil.
"When you are in a drought, to be able to use less water and to get better yield out of the same crop, all around it's a great thing," Halimi said. Farmers appreciate that the plastic is now being recycled, he added, rather than ending up in the landfill.
Strawberry grower Paul Frost of Pacific Gold Farms in Moss Landing concurs and said, "We are excited to be part of such a common-sense, yet impactful business solution to a problem that needed to be addressed."
Encore, which has drop-off locations where farmers can recycle their agricultural plastic, uses a machine-based cleaning process and also maintains an onsite wastewater treatment plant to recycle water. At the end of the wash process, the dried plastic is melted and formed into plastic pellets, a universal form of plastics manufacturing, Halimi explained. Those pellets are then pressed into rolls of film and made into bags.
California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said these efforts are in keeping with an overarching agricultural philosophy to recycle whenever possible.
"It's in the nature of farmers and ranchers to look for ways to reuse or repurpose all kinds of items around the farm," she said. "There have been exciting developments in recent years for new businesses to divert farm plastics from landfills and recycle them into a variety of useful consumer products. I applaud these kinds of sustainable solutions that also create local community jobs."