Keep your farm & the environment cleaner
By Emily Croft
Plastic products have contributed to many advancements in agriculture and are used daily by farmers, but as the world looks to improve environmental stewardship, Ontario producers are also searching for better ways to handle plastic waste.
Twine, bale wrap, silage bags and bunk covers are all used by livestock producers. Seed, pesticides, and fertilizer all come in bags, containers, and jugs that contain plastic. It is easy for these materials to pile up, particularly when disposal options are limited.
“We’ve never been able to deal with plastic,” says Pierre Belanger, the founder of Bison du Nord, a bison ranch that has been operating in Earlton for 50 years.
“We use plastic bale wrap for 2,000 bales a year. We have a very short summer season and producing dry hay and storing it is a real challenge in those volumes, so we wrap haylage in round bales.”
“All we used to do is send it to landfills or burn it. Burning plastic obviously isn’t a smart thing to do, but there were absolutely no alternatives.”
Public perception is a problem continually faced by farmers, and plastics are a hot topic for environmental sustainability. Many single-use plastics including straws, plastic cutlery and grocery bags are all set to be banned in Canada in coming years. These concerns weigh on farmers who seek to improve their environmental footprint and worry that government regulations may soon limit their use of agricultural plastics.
“What most people know about farming is what they see as they drive past the farm,” says Belanger, sharing that he believes passing consumers often judge farms, and the consciousness of the farmers, based on the cleanliness of their yards.
Plastics have allowed for higher quality and more reliable quantities of livestock feed. Plastic chemical containers keep products safely contained from spills into their environment. Total discontinuation of plastic use in agriculture is unfeasible and would harm many farms.
With public perception, environmental impact, and practicality in mind, farmers are actively searching for ways to improve their plastic management.
Developing disposal programs
Disposal of used farm plastic is complicated by several factors. Dirt, feed, and organic matter make it difficult to get plastic clean enough for recycling, and chemical bottles may pose a safety concern if not properly cleaned.
The rural nature of farming means that disposal options including landfills, and recycling programs and the end-users of recycled products may be several hours away from farms.
Spare time is rare on the farm, and long transport time may limit the ability of farmers to utilize these disposal options.
This is particularly true for farmers in more remote parts of Ontario and was a motive for the start of a plastics disposal pilot project in northern Ontario. The Agricultural Plastics Disposal Pilot Project was a combined effort between OFA and Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance that ran from 2020 to 2022. Some 30 farmers participated in the project.
“The biggest challenge is the end-user. If producers don’t know if there is a place for plastic it is hard to get involvement in recycling programs,” says Stephanie Vanthof, an OFA member services representative and one of the leads of the project.
To consolidate plastic waste and improve ease of movement, participants purchased a compactor and created bales from their used plastic. Bales were picked up on farm and transported to end-users for recycling into composite products like patio stones and lumber.
Mark Kunkel, a dairy farmer in Powassan, was previously a Northern Ontario director with OFA and was involved in the formation of the pilot, as well as being an early participant.
“Some farmers in the area were concerned about plastic not being allowed into landfills soon. We decided we should look at alternatives for plastic disposal,” says Kunkel.
“Now that we have the compactor working in our operation, we would absolutely continue using it. We’ve made two bundles, and they store very easily. Now the plastic isn’t blowing around and taking up room.”
Bison du Nord was another early adopter of the program.
“When this project showed up, we said ‘I’m in, I don’t care about price,’” shared Belanger, mentioning that the initial investment was small, covering the cost of the compactor.
“It works very well. It’s a simple system that doesn’t require much labour. We developed a routine and compact every day rather than building up a pile. It keeps everything looking nice and makes for a cleaner yard.”
“We feel good about it,” say Belanger, who must make, and store enough haylage each year to feed his 400 bison.
“Wrapped bales are a wonderful advancement in terms of forage and we just couldn’t operate at this size if we had to make dry hay and store it. We are happy with the wrapped haylage but now we can get rid of the plastic in a positive sense – it goes to recycling.”
This program has given producers more tools to manage their plastic waste within their yard but managing transportation costs and sourcing reliable end-users for recycling will continue to be a challenge beyond the end of the program.
“The goal was to have logistics and costs considered before any policy is developed regarding farm plastic disposal,” says Vanthof.
“Hopefully the industry leaders, farm organizations, and government will find an end use for this plastic,” says Kunkel.
“Now we’ll have the data in place. We know that farmers will need funding for transportation.”
Other plastic management programs are present throughout Ontario and across Canada. Cleanfarms is a non-profit Canadian company that aims to address issues in agricultural waste management and facilitates recycling programs for farms.
“Our estimate is that there are 62,000 tonnes coast to coast of agricultural plastic produced,” explains Barry Friesen, executive director of Cleanfarms.
“We currently collect around 10 per cent. The programs vary province to province. We started with the flagship program – the small container program. Our small container program has a 77 per cent recovery rate.”
Cleanfarms operates voluntarily in every province but has recently seen the rise of provincially regulated programs. Although the policies cover different types of plastic, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island have regulations requiring companies that produce and sell agricultural plastics to create plans to manage the waste.
“It’s a big job to start a new program, set up collection sites, educate the farmers and end-users – also it has to be paid for. These things don’t pick themselves up,” says Friesen, noting that he’d like to see more extensive programs for recycling in Ontario.
Friesen says the ultimate goal for end-use of agricultural plastics would be to create a circular economy.
“The concept is old, but the practice is new. Plastics are a finite resource made from petroleum, and it’s unsustainable to just throw them in the waste,” says Friesen.
“In our container program, most of our plastic from these containers goes into pipe products, sometimes drainage tile. It’s a great end-use. Ultimately, we want to make a new container out of old container and finish the loop.”
There are some challenges to recycling agricultural plastic. Steps need to be taken to reduce contamination.
“It’s different product by product. Pesticide and fertilizers containers are important to pressure wash or triple rinse. It is easier to recycle and safer to transport,” says Friesen.
“For bale and silage wrap we are piloting mini plastic balers so that the plastics aren’t sitting around on ground collecting moisture and dirt.”
Recycling programs are largely regionally run, and dependent on funding allocated to the location.
As interest increases due to potential regulations, more recycling and plastic waste programs may become available provincially.
Looking for alternatives
Many plastic products come at a cost to farmers, but few alternative products currently exist that would allow for the same quality of management.
As consumers move away from single-use plastics, many research groups across the world have started looking at the production of biodegradable alternatives, maintaining the functionality of the product without the environmental implications.
A University of Guelph research team, led by a collaboration between the Pensini lab in the School of Engineering and the Marangoni lab in the Food Science Department, has been developing spray-on films made from plant proteins for silage covers and bale wrap.
The research investigated inclusion of various plant proteins combined with oils and hardening agents on water permeability and flexibility traits of the products, adjusting for differences between silage films and a more elastic bale wrap. The product was initially a spray-on liquid that hardened, but they have found that many producers prefer a pre-made product.
Limited by smaller lab facilities, Pensini’s group hopes to collaborate to fine-tune their product and be able to manufacturer biodegradable products at a larger scale. She shares that it may be a few years before these products are widely available.
“What we would like to do is look into flexibility and robustness, as well as combining other natural fibres. We want to take other waste materials and revalue them into material that can be used again,” says Pensini.
There is enthusiasm from the industry about these new products. When looking at biodegradable products farmers need cost, practicality, and function to be considered.
“It has to be cost-effective, but I would buy it in a heartbeat. Then I know it could go to a landfill or be recycled in a more efficient way,” explains Kunkel.
Regarding functionality, Pensini compared their biodegradable plastics to leaving a piece of wood outside.
“The oils we are using are benign. Linseed oil is an oil you’d put on furniture. It’s like leaving a piece of wood out. It doesn’t it decompose in one day. They will be degraded but not right away and they won’t leach anything bad into the environment.”
“There’s no denying it will be a greater cost than plastic,” says Pensini.
“But the commercial cost of plastic is not representative of real cost. We are not paying for cost of water and greenhouse gas emissions. The commercial cost of plastic will change, and I think it will happen quite soon.”
Belanger shares that he’d be eager to look at alternatives to traditional plastic, with the goal of having an environmentally benign operation.
“It’s an issue that’s not going to go away until we deal with it.” BF