There’s a mountain of plastic waste but Cleanfarms aims to conquer it

Organization says 62,000 tonnes of ag waste is created annually and only a tenth is recycled

Bale wrap accounts for nearly a quarter of the ag plastic used annually on Canadian farms, says a new study by Cleanfarms.
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A mountain of plastic waste comes off Canadian farms each year — nearly 62,000 tonnes annually.

But even though Cleanfarms currently diverts only a small fraction of that pile into recycling, the organization wants to one day see all of it collected and recycled. That’s why it commissioned a study to identify the types and amount of plastic packaging and products generated by the ag sector.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Barry Friesen, executive director of the industry-funded organization. “Our goal is to move towards collecting all of the agricultural plastics and we need to know what it is.”

The study examined everything from baler twine and grain bags to greenhouse roof film and maple syrup tubing, and used a combination of “desktop research” and expert interviews to estimate how much plastic is generated.

The 62,000-tonne figure shows there’s a lot of ground to make up — Cleanfarms currently collects 6,000 tonnes of ag plastics annually (although that’s triple what was collected in 2015).

Alberta is only slightly behind Saskatchewan when it comes to use of ag plastic (both account for 23 per cent of the national total) with Ontario in third spot (at 22 per cent).

Nationally, Cleanfarms estimated that field crops (including grain, silage and forage) account for the bulk of plastic use (59 per cent) followed by pesticide and fertilizer packaging. Alberta generates 14 tonnes of ag plastic waste annually with the top uses being bale wrap (nearly five tonnes), net wrap (2.5 tonnes), grain bags (nearly two tonnes) and twine (1.5 tonnes).

And the type of plastic varies by product. For example, bale wrap is made from linear low-density polyethylene (and grain bags from low-density polyethylene) while twine is made from polypropylene.

Even if they look similar, they can be very different from each other — which makes it challenging for recyclers as they prefer to have a single stream of one type of plastic, said Friesen.

Still, every type should be recycled, says the Cleanfarms report.

“There is a strong desire to divert even more ag plastics,” it states. “A national, multi-phased strategy would enable the industry to divert even more ag plastics and recirculate them in the economy.”

The report makes several recommendations to do that, including getting more farmers to use Cleanfarms existing recycling programs (which collect grain bags, large tote bags, plastic containers up to 23 litres, drums, twine, bale wrap and silage film).

It also recommends more pilot projects for ag plastics, stable funding for recycling programs and more use of recycled ag plastic in making new products.

Cleanfarms, which is funded by makers of ag products such as the crop protection sector and grain makers, currently is launching six pilot projects “designed to help recover a greater portion of essential, high-volume ag plastics,” said Friesen.

We anticipate we’ll see the recovery numbers climb year over year,” he said.

But new technology is needed to add new end markets for the plastics, he added. For instance, at the moment bulk bags (super sacks) can’t be recycled and may be burned as fuel for power generation. There are recyclers who are “kicking the tires” on ways to recycle these, he said.

There are also new chemical recycling processes being developed, said Friesen pointing to an Ontario facility (that is working with Cleanfarms) that turns plastics into wax for use in shingle manufacture, road construction and other uses.

Lastly, each province should hold plastic producers responsible for recycling their product as this would ensure stable funding for recycling programs, the report states.

For more info on recycling options in Alberta, go to cleanfarms.ca and click on Programs by Province.

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