Pilot program to search for solutions for mountain of plastic waste

Thousands of tonnes of old grain bags and twine are burned or put in landfills each year in Alberta

Alberta farmers have been grappling with the issue of waste plastic for years, but most don’t have a recycling option.
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Alberta Beef Producers has been given a $750,000 grant to co-ordinate a three-year recycling pilot program and look for a permanent solution for dealing with the tonnes of plastic waste generated by farms and ranches every year.

The pilot will examine the logistics and costs of recycling grain bags and twine. It will also look at ways to deal with other agricultural plastics (such as bale wrap, silage bags, and greenhouse plastic) and survey producers to get their feedback.

The issue has been studied for more than a decade.

A 2007 study by the Recycling Council of Alberta said the “use of plastic in agriculture is ubiquitous” in the province. It estimated that 4,300 to 5,000 tonnes of polypropylene (twine and cord) were sold in Alberta in that year, along with 3,000 to 4,000 tonnes of polyethylene material (silage and grain bags). A second study conducted in 2013 estimated Alberta farms used 3,300 to 6,400 tonnes of grain and silage bags yearly, along with 2,000 to 6,000 tonnes of twine.

A 2012 survey of producers found about half of them were burning agricultural plastics and that “sending plastics to a landfill was also a common method” of disposing of them. But more than 80 per cent of those surveyed said they wanted to be able to recycle those plastics but three-quarters said it was difficult or very difficult to do so.

There are “pockets of recycling” for ag plastics in the province, but they “only supply a recycling option to a very small percentage of the population,” said a December white paper by the Agricultural Plastics Recycling Group, an alliance of farm groups, municipal organizations, retailers, and recyclers formed in late 2016.

“The largest challenge to expand recycling opportunities to all areas of the province remains the lack of a provincially regulated ag plastics recycling program,” the white paper stated. “With a provincial program, accessibility to recycling would increase, and agricultural producers in all agricultural-intensive regions of the province would have access to a well-resourced and environmentally beneficial recycling program. Environmental stewardship programs also ensure financial fairness, as those benefiting from the use of the product are the ones who contribute funding to have the material recycled.”

The biggest concern for producers is the cost, said the white paper, which suggested looking at the model adopted by Saskatchewan. In November, Saskatchewan began charging a 25-cents-per-kilogram environmental handling fee on grain bags to fund a recycling program by Cleanfarms, a not-for-profit stewardship organization. Cleanfarms has set up more than 20 collections sites in Saskatchewan and plans to open 15 more this year.

The Saskatchewan fee was determined following a six-year pilot program that saw more than 3,600 tonnes of grain bags recycled. In the recycling process, bags are shredded, washed, and then pelletized. The pellets are sold to manufacturers that make products such as plastic garbage bags (with the net proceeds used to reduce the recycling fee).

The Agricultural Plastics Recycling Group has 20 members, including Alberta Beef Producers (ABP), Alberta Barley, Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association, the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, and Alberta Milk.

“There is strong support for this program from the agriculture sectors in Alberta,” said Neil Gorda, an Alberta Barley director who sits on the group’s executive. “We look forward to the rollout of this much-needed initiative.”

“We are excited to start working out the details of the program and will send more information to producers as soon as possible,” added Assar Grinde, an ABP director who is also on the recycling group’s executive.

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