By Tim Kalinowski
Agricultural plastics have their advantages and uses in today’s farming business, but they also leave a big problem behind, says Alberta Plastics Recycling Association executive director Tammy Schwass.
“These plastics have a number of uses in the agricultural sector in helping farmers increase the life of their grains, hay and silage,” she says. “They are very useful in solving a problem for the farmers, but with a lack of options for disposal and recycling they have become a problem at the end of their use.
“When you burn them, for example, there are harmful chemicals that enter the air, and they are cancer causing agents associated with that burning. Ideally, it is not something which should be happening.”
The Association has started a working group called the Alberta Agricultural Plastic Recycling Group, and has had good uptake in the agricultural sector.
“We have been seeing an increasing number of inquiries from farmers looking for disposal options, and recycling options, for the plastics,” Schwass confirms. “One of the things we are discussing, based on the results of our pilot projects which are working out the logistics of how it would work, is needing a solution for the whole province.
“There a definite pockets of recycling out there now,” she concedes. “But really what we are looking at then in order to be able to expand that for every citizen across the province. For that to happen, we need to have provincial regulation of some kind in place to ensure that access.”
Schwass says there are recycling options for these kinds of plastics, but often the challenge is the collection system just does not have enough logistical capacity. To bring in that kind of system province-wide would require enhanced funding and resources from some quarter, says Schwass. However, Schwass believes it is certainly doable— as Alberta’s nearest neighbour in Saskatchewan has shown— if there is industry buy-in and government will behind the decision making.
“Saskatchewan has passed a regulation which says the first importers of the grain bags, and they focus purely on grain bags and no other type of agricultural plastics, had to have a solution to recycle the plastic,” she explains. “For them, they had an environmental handling fee, and that is how they set up the program where they hired a national organization called Clean Farms to run that program.”
Schwass says the signals her group is getting from the Alberta government is interest in the white paper they have submitted on the issue, and recognition of the current problem with the disposal of agricultural plastics— but also a strong sense it is a backburner issue for the powers-that-be at the moment.
“We don’t have any timelines at this time,” she admits. “We are simply forging ahead. We have a strong commitment from our stakeholders to see something done, but we don’t yet have a response or commitment from the government.”
One county which is forging ahead with its own agricultural plastics recycling program, without waiting for the provincial government, is Wheatland County. Wheatland County has been heavily invested in recycling these plastics in its own jurisdiction for the past eight years.
“We realized it was an issue out there as grain bags started becoming more popular,” says Russ Muenchrath, agricultural services manager for Wheatland County. “There wasn’t a means of disposal for our producers, short of landfilling. And of course, just with the bulk of the product, it would fill up a landfill in a hurry.
“Then there was the environmental side of things, where some producers were burning the products. So we saw the need to do something … In 2011, we started with our first collection of plastic bags here at our county facility, with the intent of taking them to the recycler.”
After initial demonstrations and field trials, Muenchrath found local farmers receptive to taking part in a broader agricultural plastics recycling program. The county brought in advisers Merlin Plastics and Crowfoot Plastics to help set up the county’s first recycling program.
“We found producers wanted to do the right thing,” remembers Muenchrath. “There had been producers hanging onto their plastic for a long time wanting to be able to recycle it. They found it was important enough to save it until it could be disposed of properly.
“Part of it was just an education for producers so they know what the requirements for recycling were, and to get a feel for how much product was out there. We had quite a bit of product come in that first year, and we learned the recycler needed a certain size of rolled product to run through their processing machines.”
The county purchased its first plastics roller in 2013 and made it available for use to local farmers, but soon found another challenge needed to be overcome. Merlin and Crowfoot had markets for the recycled plastic products they were making out of the ag. plastics, but needed a more consistent supply coming in to meet their orders.
The county again decided to step in and take a hand to ensure both the companies and farmers got what they needed out of the deal.
“In 2015 we decided to move to a service-oriented program where we would go out onto farms, roll the bags for them, and help teach producers what was needed for the recycler from a cleanliness standpoint, and to maintain consistency of supply as well. So far it has worked really great from our standpoint, and the standpoint of our producers and recyclers. Everybody seems to be quite pleased.”
Muenchrath explains how the recycling program works.
“We have a grain bag roller mounted on a trailer,” he says. “The farmer calls us. We go out and roll the grain bags for them. They sign a release for the grain bags to us; so they become our property. When we have enough in place, we call the recycler. Merlin Plastics sources the material for Crowfoot Plastics, which is based on the Green Acres Colony near Bassano. A load is 27 bales on our trailer, and when we have a load we’ll call and say we’re ready to bring in a load. We’ll take it down to them, weigh in and weigh out, and then they pay us up to $100 per tonne for the product.”
So instead of having to pay landfill fees for the plastic, which can run as high as $52 per tonne, the county is able to make enough from the sale of the material to cover most of their recycling costs.
“It allows us to recoup our time and investment,” confirms Muenchrath. “We keep close track of the numbers, and it is worth it for us. We have the advantage of having the recycler in our boundary so the haul isn’t that far for us.”
Muenchrath says he regularly receives calls from other jurisdictions who are interested in what Wheatland County has been able to accomplish with its agricultural plastics recycling program, and that was one of the county’s main goals in setting up the program in the first place: To start a conversation about the problem of agricultural plastics disposal on Alberta farms.
“It has been well worth it from my standpoint,” states Muenchrath. “We have been waiting for a recycling program for a long time in this province, going back to 2006 this has been an issue. So part of it was, for us, let’s try something and do something ourselves. Fortunately it has worked out well, and we have shown this type of program can work.”