Paonia Artist Turns Irrigation Waste Into Art

Nov 28, 2018


During droughts, farmers on the Western Slope of Colorado have to use more plastic drip tape to irrigate. Last summer, Paonia artist John Melvin created an art piece to illustrate the amount of waste being produced and worked with local farmers and Delta County to set up a drip tape recycling program.  KVNF's Chris Marcinek has the story...

Water is a vital resource, and climate scientists predict that without action to reduce carbon emissions, droughts will continue to get worse in the American West. An important irrigation tool to small farmers is drip tape. It’s a one-inch wide flexible hose made of thin plastic that farmers can use to water a bed of plants more efficiently than a sprinkler can. The problem is, drip tape doesn’t last forever — and farmers aren’t quite sure what to do with all of it.

John Melvin is an artist with Elsewhere Studio in Paonia and he’s working to raise awareness about plastic pollution through the lens of an artist. At an art symposium held in Paonia, John displayed his latest piece involving used plastic drip tape from a local farm.

Quote: “All I really did is just you know make a giant ball of this stuff, bailed it together and suspended it from a ten foot frame of four by fours that I put together.”

Quote: “What would you estimate that thing weighed?”

Quote: “I think it’s several hundred pounds.”

John wants to be clear. He doesn’t mean for his artwork to be an affront to hardworking farmers. He knows that for many farmers, it’s more of an economic decision than an ethical one to use plastic. Jen Muller runs Yurtstead Farms a few miles west of Montrose.

She’s been selling at farmer’s markets for four seasons now and she agrees that it is frustrating that farmers have to use so much plastic. But she does what she can to extend the life of her drip tape.

Quote: “I have better luck with 6 mil vs. 4 mil. I mean it depends, if you put the investment in on the 6 mil, I have some that I’ve actually been using for 4 years, because I patch it too. I don’t if everyone is patient enough to patch it. But effective small farmers know that you just have to reuse everything until it’s completely dead. I feel like it’s that same mentality that drove pioneering America where you didn’t throw out things. You kept things if they were going be potentially useful again. Because you don’t have the resources and I don’t want to waste plastic stuff. If I can use it again I will. So my junk drip tape just gets put in my ‘use me for patch’ bin.”

Jen is thrifty with her drip tape, but not all farmers have the time and resources to patch their drip tape. As Colorado’s population grows, its landfills are growing too. According to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment records, Coloradans are sending 34 percent more solid waste to landfills than they did in 2012. The data also shows that Coloradans used to better at keeping plastics out of landfills. In 2012, 44,262 tons of plastic were diverted from landfills. While in 2017, only 23,498 tons of plastic were kept from entering landfills. To keep all this plastic drip tape from ending up in the landfill, John decided that raising awareness about it wasn’t enough.

Quote: “I started a communication thread between Robbie LeValley with Delta County and then about 60 of the organic farmers. You know it’s a tactic that is common amongst grassroots efforts, it’s commonly referred to as peer pressure. And we started to really kind of get a crowd source, crowd inertia basically if you want to think about it that way. And Robbie is now really working hard with me and I think we could say we’re collaborating pretty heavily to try to get it forward.”

Robbie LeValley of Delta County together with a local waste management company are exploring avenues to identify potential purchasers who might be interested in the used drip tape. The program has not officially started yet so farmers should hang onto their used drip tape for now.

Quote: “And we’ll continue to work on a solution. We do not want to over promise because we’re still in the research phase, but we’re all working toward the same goal.”

For Western Slope Resources Reporting, this is Chris Marcinek.

John Melvin’s drip tape scupture.
Credit John Melvin