Dhu Thompson was one of the early pioneers in bringing flexible irrigation tubing or poly pipe to farmers at a time when they were in desperate need of a cheap, efficient way to irrigate their crops.
But Thompson, owner and chairman of Delta Plastics, thinks his bigger accomplishment may have been in finding a way to reuse the plastic tubing and thus remove it from the environment economically.
“When I bought Delta Plastics 25 years ago, I had a fairly decent financial background,” said Thompson, who received the Arkansas Soil and Water Education Conference Friend of Conservation Agriculture Award at the ASWEC awards luncheon at Arkansas State University in January.
“I had been a banker for 20 years, but I wanted to own something. I had this idea that we could produce plastic tubing by extruding it; deliver it to farmers; remove it from the environment, clean it up and produce a post-consumer resin from used plastic.”
When he presented the idea to bankers in Stuttgart, Ark., where Delta Plastics was then based, “I got a chuckle and a good luck,” he said. “It turned out they knew more than I did.”
The first year he was in business, he lost $1.5 million, he told conference participants. The second year he lost $500,000, and the third year, $400,000. He was convinced the business model was sound — it just needed tweaking.
“Let’s shift to where we are now,” he said. “Companies sell the plastic tubing to distributors, and they, in turn, sell it to the farmers. So what do we do differently at Delta Plastics?
“We went to the farmer and said, ‘Polytubing is a commodity that you’re going to use every year. We’ll come out to your farm and clean it up for free.’ The farmer went back to the distributor and said, ‘I want to buy from Delta Plastics.’ When the distributor asked why, farmers said ‘because they will remove it from my farm for free.'”
Delta Plastics is now the largest manufacturer of polytubing in the world and one of the largest recyclers of heavily soiled plastic materials. It is located in six U.S. states and in South America.
Convert to garbage bags
“We now keep between 125 million and 150 million pounds of plastic out of the environment, out of the landfills,” he said. “We convert it into post-consumer resin for use in garbage bags. When you look on the back of garbage bags, you’ll see it says 35 percent post-consumer resin. That’s us.”
After first supplying the resin to garbage bag manufacturers, Delta Plastics decided to get in the business itself and now makes and sells EPA-compliant garbage bags at its Revolution Bags plant in Little Rock. Customers include the Atlanta International Airport, Denver’s Mile-High Stadium and the New York City schools.
“The result is our garbage bags are produced with the smallest environmental footprint possible,” he said. “That’s the way the world is moving — to increased sustainability on all fronts.”
In 2014, Thompson decided Delta Plastics would provide its Pipe Planner computerized hole selection software to farmers at no cost if they would use it on their farms. Combined with the company’s H2O program, Thompson estimates farmers are saving more than 100 billion gallons of irrigation water per year with Pipe Planner.
Delta Plastics, he said, now provides a “unique intersection” of his two passions, entrepreneurship and conservation. “It’s very rare that you will find a for-profit company that also has a larger ‘do good’ mission and operating philosophy at its core.”