The U.S. cotton industry enjoys the reputation of producing some of the least contaminated cotton in the world. Maintaining that deserved honor, however, will require industry-wide vigilance, says National Cotton Council Vice President for Technical Services Bill Norman.
A dramatic increase in plastic contamination over the last three years Norman says, makes prevention a priority. Protecting U.S. cotton's reputation will require participation by every aspect of the cotton industry, he adds.
(Bill Norman, National Cotton Council vice president for technical services and The Cotton Foundation executive director. Photo courtesy of NCC.)
Every bale ginned in the U.S. is classed or "graded" at one of 10 USDA-AMS Cotton & Tobacco cotton classing facilities. An 8-ounce sample from each bale is evaluated manually and electronically for fiber length, length uniformity, fiber strength, micronaire, color grade, trash, and leaf grade. A manual evaluation of each sample determines classification for extraneous matter and special conditions.
Non-plant contaminants, like plastic identified in a sample are called or flagged.
"After the 2017 crop, the U.S. cotton classing offices reported 2,651 calls out of a 20-million-bale crop," Norman said during the May 6 Plastics in Cotton webinar. "In 2018, not quite 18 million bales, a smaller crop, there were 3,035 calls. And then in 2019, a 19-million bale crop had almost 5,000 calls."
Traditionally, classing offices have reported only a "handful" of plastic calls, less than 100 for the whole cotton crop, said Norman, who is also the executive director for The Cotton Foundation. "In 2017, every area, every region of the country, every classing office, had some plastic call."
Out of 2,870 "other" calls, a classification category for plant and non-plant contaminants, plastic made up 91% or 2,614. Well over 93% of the contaminant calls in 2017 were identified as either yellow, pink, or black, Norman said.
Black likely comes from mulch, he said, used to grow melons and other fruits and vegetables in fields followed by cotton. "We have other colors as well, like blue or red; these probably come from polypropylene twines, tiedown twine, module tarp remnants, ditch liners, poly pipe -- a number of sources." But the majority were yellow, pink, and black, he added.
Originally, when plastics were classed, they were coded as 61 or 62. Following the 2018 season and a large amount of plastics, AMS added two extraneous matter classing codes -- 71 or 72 -- to separate the plastic calls from the "other," Norman said. A 71 code reflects a light amount of plastic, while a 72 signifies a more significant amount.
In 2019, the classing office reported as few as 92 plastic calls at one facility and more than 1,590 calls at another. "The rate of plastic calls per classing office ranged from one per 17,000 bales in Florence (South Carolina), relative to Corpus Christi (Texas) which had one call per 1,350 bales," Norman said.
The color for the 2019 crop, showed a slight reduction in yellow, but an increase of pink and black. "We were at about 5% (black) in 2017, now it's at 10%. And blue has come up. All of this is showing a handful of colors creating the worst issues. And that's where we have to work to continue to reduce this problem and understand if it's pink, blue or yellow wrap, what do we do? How do we do it?"
Relative to the other extraneous matter such as bark, which had 935,735 calls, and seedcoat with 10,805, "4,000 or 5,000 calls for plastic may seem small in comparison." But Norman said those calls are plant-related. "Plastic is now our largest non-plant issue."
Prevention, Education, Detection
To address plastics in cotton, cotton industry representatives gathered in May 2018 for a two-day Contamination Summit. From producers to ginners to researchers to millers to merchants, leadership assembled to discuss prevention, education, research and detection.
They also considered the consequences of undetected plastics. "Our sample does not always represent what might be in the bale with plastic. Plastic cannot show up in the sample, but show up in the bale," Norman said. "We've had issues where entire shipments have come back."
Undetected plastic poses liability issues for the merchant community. "Contamination, extraneous matter, is covered by the International Cotton Association Rule 230. (The ICA is the association that manages the international contracts for cotton sales.) That rule covers both the buyer's and the seller's responsibilities. The buyer can claim reasonable expenses from the seller in removing the foreign matter. Any expenses can come back on the seller. Historically, the seller, the merchant community, absorbed those expenses," Norman said. But in 2018, that changed, and merchants are no longer absorbing those costs.
Controlling fees, charged for bales called back, are becoming more expensive and cleaning fees more subjective, said Norman. "Labor costs are increasing to clean up a bale."
"This is jeopardizing our contamination-free reputation," a merchant summit participant said. That reputation is something Norman said, "We need to protect."'
A key point gleaned from the summit is the need for prevention. "That starts in the field," Norman said.
Along with updating its educational material, the National Cotton Council, with support of The Cotton Foundation, TAMA USA, and John Deere, created a video, "Prevention of Plastic Contamination. Recommended Best Practices for Producers and Ginners." The free video, available in English and Spanish, can be accessed on the NCC YouTube channel, https://bit.ly/2Z7z7R6.
"Much of the original footage for the video was taken from a gin meeting hosted by McCleskey Cotton Co. in Bronwood, Ga., but it also involves segments from NCC gin schools, all focusing on best practices from the field to the gin. The early chapters include John Deere service technicians pointing out possible adjustments. 'If there's a certain problem, look here. If you've got tears in the wrap, look here. Looks for these parts, look for these adjustments.' Very detailed in that regard."
The video also addresses staging and the importance of lining up the modules correctly.
It covers oversized modules, too. "If they aren't lined up properly, or if they are oversized, the wrap will rub up against the walls of that module truck, and the wrap tears.
"Ginners who have had success with minimal to no plastic calls at their gins, tell us that if a module arrives without damage to the wrap, they can almost guarantee that module will get through the gin without contamination. But if there's damage to the wrap, whether it's from the formation of the module or an issue with the harvester or in staging or transport, then they are going to have a problem preventing that plastic from getting in the ginning stream. So, the protection of those modules is important."
The video contains 12 chapters from one to five minutes long.
"Whether you're a grower or a ginner, we encourage you to look at the video. We're not asking people to watch every minute," Norman said. Rather, the video is broken up, so a tractor driver or harvest equipment operator or a module truck driver or a ginner can choose topics that pertain to them.
"We are grateful for the input from our Cotton Foundation members, TAMA USA and John Deere and for the valuable input of the ownership and management team of McCleskey Cotton Co in Georgia for initiating this most recent education effort," Norman said.
For more information about how to prevent plastic contamination, visit the NCC website.
Next? When plastics are found in cotton, who foots the bill? Is it the grower? The ginner? The merchant? Or the consumer? Visit our website Monday, May 18, to see how John Robinson, professor and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension specialist with cotton marketing, answers this question.