Managing Farm Plastic

Keep your yard & 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, Prairie 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.

Assar Grinde, a beef farmer from Bluffton, Alta., and executive member of Agricultural Plastics Recycling Group (APRG), got involved in recycling while looking for a way to manage his own farm plastic.

“Why I was originally interested in it is because I had been stockpiling plastic for years and I wanted something done with it,” says Grinde.

Public perception is a problem continually faced by farmers, and plastics are a hot topic for environmental sustainability.

Tractor bales wrapped in plastic
   Cleanfarms photo

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.

Agricultural 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 strategies to improve their plastic management.

Developing disposal programs

Disposal of used farm plastic is complicated by several factors. Dirt, feed, and organic matter may make it difficult to get plastic clean enough for recycling, and chemical bottles may pose a safety concern if they are not properly cleaned.

Disposal options including landfills and recycling programs, and the end-users of recycled products may be a distance from farms. Spare time is rare on the farm, and long transport distances limit the ability to utilize these disposal options. Convenience plays a large role in the program uptake.

Cleanfarms is a non-profit organization that operates voluntarily in every province with a mixture of permanent and pilot programs, targeting various agricultural plastics.

Shane Hedderson, Western region director for Cleanfarms, explains that the logistics of recycling are currently being investigated across Western Canada through a variety of pilot projects. These programs test end-uses and collection strategies for plastics.

“These projects are a little more regional and not necessarily available to all farmers. They are more on a trial basis as we aim to scale up to permanent, large-scale programs.”

Current pilot projects across the Prairies are investigating the collection and management of bale wrap, silage tarps and other films. Some of these projects have led to permanent programs for agricultural plastics such as twine and grain bags.

bale wrap and silage bag compactor trial
   Cleanfarms pilots test use of compactors on farm to compress bale wrap and silage bags for recycling. -Cleanfarms photo

Cleanfarms’ empty pesticide and fertilizer jug program has been operating in the nationally for years. A pilot collecting seed, pesticide and inoculant bags transitions to a permanent program across the Prairies this year.

“Today we collect almost 80 per cent of empty containers sold into the market each year. This collection rate is really high. Eight out of 10 farmers are bringing back their containers for recycling, which is a strong indicator that farmers are happy to do their part. No producer is obligated to participate,” says Hedderson.

Net wrap is currently the only plastic not currently being recycled in the Prairies. This is a source of frustration for Matthew Atkinson, a beef farmer in Neepawa, Man., and vice president of Manitoba Beef Producers.

“We had reasonably good hay this year to put up as dry hay. I used a lot of net wrap,” says Atkinson.

“Unfortunately, most goes direct to a landfill. I don’t really like it and I try to minimize it, but the economics of using net wrap are a big advantage. Sadly, no recycling programs accept net wrap.

“I’d like to do better, but there isn’t a way for me to do better right now. It’s a challenge.”

Hedderson explains that net wrap is difficult to recycle, but Cleanfarms is looking for potential recyclers who can manage it and hope to start a pilot as soon as they find someone.

“Our goal ultimately is to have collection and recycling for all agricultural plastics, but that just doesn’t happen all at once,” says Hedderson.

In Alberta, Cleanfarms works in collaboration with APRG.

“In 2016 or 2017, there were some resolutions brought forward at some of the producer meetings to deal with on-farm plastics. A lot of municipalities were no longer accepting it into landfills, so a lot of people were burning it,” says Grinde, who has held an executive position with APRG since it started.

“Everybody was concerned with it, so we formed the Agricultural Plastics Recycling Group. One of the first things we did was fact-finding and asked for a pilot to start up. The government has put $1 million into a pilot for recycling grain bags and plastic twine. We hired Cleanfarms as operators for the program.”

Some permanent programs are regulated by Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), putting the responsibility for waste management on the manufacturer, rather than the farmer.

“The most important idea of EPR is that the producer isn’t the farmer but producer of plastic. The whole idea is to put the responsibility of collection and recycling on the people that are making it, with the goal of driving better design of products,” says Grinde.

Recycled plastics have a variety of end-uses, depending on the type of plastic. Some containers are used for drainage tile, and twine can be used for auto parts or composite products.

Hedderson says that he is most excited about opportunities to use these recycled products on the farm.

“The one we are most proud of is what is happening in Alberta. Plastic films and grain bags are collected, recycled, and turned into new agricultural products right in the same province,” says Hedderson.

“The plastics are turned into a pellet and used by manufacturers in Alberta to make new silage plastic. It’s a nice Canadian circular economy solution.”

Recycling provides exciting and convenient solutions to plastic products that are already on the market, but alternatives may present a more permanent solution and decrease the overall demand for plastic in agriculture.

“Personally, I don’t think recycling is the final solution,” says Grinde, who believes that more EPR regulations will lead to the development of competitive replacements for plastic.

“It will lead to more research into alternative or better products. They will be more cost competitive than recycling plastics.”

Looking for alternatives

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 plant-protein based materials as well materials obtained with oils and hardening agents. It analyzed water permeability and flexibility traits of the products, adjusting for differences between silage films and 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 manufacture biodegradable products at a larger scale. She explains 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 Dr. Erica 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.

Manitoba Beef Producers’ Atkinson says he’d love to see biodegradable net wrap options someday.

“If there was an option like that, that would be outstanding. I hate net wrap and twine in any form, but if there was a way to know that any small remnant left behind in the field would biodegrade – that would be a great option.”

“We are all fighting a pretty challenging profit margin too. Whatever comes to market needs to work well, but it also needs to be comparable in price so we can afford it too.”

Grinde believes that functionality is also important to make these products competitive with the long-lasting nature of plastic.

“It depends how long you are storing your feed,” he says.

“I use mine within the year and don’t have to worry about biodegrading. For people keeping feed around for a while, plastic might be the best option.”

Pensini compared her lab’s biodegradable films 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 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.”

Overall, Cleanfarms’s Hedderson believes that if options are available to producers, they will do what they can to protect the environment.

“When programs exist and are easy to use and accessible, farmers embrace them strongly.

“Farmers are stewards of the land. No one understands environmental protection of farmland better than a farmer.” BF

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