U.S. cotton has the reputation as the cleanest lint in the world. This distinction is under threat these days by an increased amount of plastic contamination found in shipments received by domestic textile mills.

Last year, plastic contamination moved from an ongoing concern to a front-burner issue for the cotton industry. U.S. textile mills notified the National Cotton Ginners Association (NCGA) and others about thick plastic films found in the cotton received by the mills.

This finding has the U.S. cotton industry on high alert. The plastic threatens U.S. cotton’s clean reputation.

“The goal as a ginner is to produce and provide the best lint and fiber in the world,” said Richard Kelley, NCGA President and the owner-president of the Burlison Gin Company in Burlison, Tenn.

“We cannot provide the best fiber in the world if it’s contaminated.”

Kelley and NCGA Executive Director Harrison Ashley discussed the plastic contamination issue with cotton growers, ginners, and other industry representatives during the 2013 Arizona Cotton Industry Meeting in Carefree, Ariz. in early May.

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The NCGA evaluated the contaminated cotton samples provided by the mills. The thickness of the plastic contaminants ranged from 5/10s of an inch to 6-mils thick. The thinner plastic is common in plastic grocery store or garbage bags blown by wind into farm fields.

The thicker plastic in the samples was from ditch liners in vegetable production where cotton is later grown, plus the plastic wrapped around cotton bales from on-board module builders at harvest.

Industry-wide problem

Kelley says the plastic contamination issue is not strictly a grower or gin issue. It is an industry-wide issue.

“This could be a potential disaster for U.S. cotton if we do not take this situation seriously,” Kelley said.

Harrison Ashley of Cordova, Tenn. says cotton growers and ginners have dealt with thinner plastic shopping bags for years. Growers remove plastic bags littering the sides of fields before harvest. Bags blown into the field are hard to find due to the heavy plant canopy as pickers and strippers harvest cotton.

At the gin level, Ashley says cleaning equipment does a fairly good job of removing thinner mil plastic. The thicker module plastic is more difficult to remove.

The NCGA asked agricultural engineer Richard Byler of the USDA-ARS cotton ginning lab in Stoneville, Miss. to run different plastics through a micro gin to determine how well the ginning equipment cleaned the cotton.

Most smaller, thinner plastic pieces were removed by the cylinder cleaners. Some thicker plastic was removed by the extractors but a large amount survived the ginning process.

The NCGA, the National Cotton Council, Cotton Incorporated, USDA, and John Deere are working on the plastic issue.

Last fall, USDA and NCC staff visited gins to learn how gins unwrap round modules. The methods ranged from a simple box cutter to a $400,000 Stover system.

Kelley says it’s important to carefully cut and remove module wrap at the gin.

“Don’t take a lackadaisical attitude that the plastic is not getting into the cotton,” Kelley said.

Ashley advises ginners to make sure cotton modules are picked up carefully without tearing the lip of round modules.

Tips to avoid contamination

Ashley offered tips to help keep contaminates out of cotton at the farm and the gin.

At the farm level:

  • Remove plastic mulches, poly irrigation ditch liners, pipe, and shopping bags, plus grease and oily residue from fields before harvest.
  • Inspect harvest equipment daily for foreign material during harvest.
  • Do not place modules near potential contaminants or on standing or shredded stalks.

At the gin level:

  • Make sure module covers and wraps are completely removed prior to ginning. Account for every piece of plastic.
  • Frequently inspect the module feeder area for foreign matter.
  • To safeguard workers, be prepared to shown down the equipment or the gin to remove contaminates until the job is complete.


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