With incredible yields comes the incredible need for storage. Fortunately, plastics protect much of our agricultural commodities today, in North America — twine and net-wrap secure livestock forage and bags shelter grain and hay. But are we overvaluing these privileges? Are we willing to sacrifice the environment and our own health as balance to protecting the harvest?
The estimated values for agricultural waste in Alberta are astonishing, with as much as 15,600 tonnes of plastic and paper waste being produced annually. Anywhere from 6,600 to 14,000 tonnes of that waste is plastic, and much of it ends up in the burning barrel, blowing away, buried or trucked to a landfill. Rural recycling programs are nearly nonexistent, and those devoted to large-scale agriculture plastic are few.
According to a summary report on Alberta’s Agricultural Plastics Recycling Pilot Project, though entrepreneurs have shown interest in agricultural plastics for recycling, covering costs and generating profit is extremely challenging. The process for recycling can also be quite challenging, as plastics of various resin types need to be separated, clean, dry, and, of course, readily transported.
While 334 municipal collection sites exist for tires in Alberta, 350 for electronics and 350 for paint (all of which have some sort of environmental/recycling fee), only a few municipalities are collecting agricultural plastics for recycling.
For one, burning agricultural plastics in
Canada is illegal. It’s also terrible for
environmental health and our own, resulting
in the release of heavy metals, dioxins and
Dioxins and furans bioaccumulate, are known
carcinogens and have demonstrated negative
affects on the immune, nervous, endocrine and
reproductive systems of humans.
That article was actually what spurred on my interest in determining how Alberta could improve in recycling agricultural plastics (my corner of the world has very little experience with such endeavours). I called Christina Seidel, executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta, who provided me with a basic understanding of the issue, its challenges and potential solutions.
Seidel explained that the markets for plastics are readily available but that they can’t or don’t pay enough to drive the system — the same issue that most recycling programs face, hence recycling/environmental fees. To drive recycling, Seidel argued, you need to drive supply.
And that’s exactly what Saskatchewan has done by funding the pilot project administered by Simply Agriculture Solutions Inc., while Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Environment and CleanFARMS’ Saskatchewan Agricultural Stewardship Council (SASC) work on programming and policy around continued agricultural plastic recycling. In this case, a mandatory, minimum price increase for manufacturers will likely be set to help fund the program, which will probably mean a higher cost to farmers purchasing the products.
A recycling issue is an economic issue. – Christina Seidel, executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta
I know, it’s not easy to swallow yet another cost to production, but a province-wide — and dare I challenge national? — recycling strategy would be well-worth the cost. Closing the loop on agricultural plastics wouldn’t just free up acres of landfill space, it would also help in our never-ending struggle for “sustainability.” If we really want citizens to consider agriculture one of the industries at the forefront of environmental management, let’s talk less, do more. And if we really can’t see any way of paying a few extra dollars for the ability to recycle our plastics, let’s brainstorm other ways to make the system work. Perhaps we could integrate a recycling refund incentive with a fee on manufacturers. Alternatively, recyclers could “buy” agricultural plastics but instead of paying the farmer, pay a recycling fund to cover transport/processing.
The Next Step
When I spoke to Seidel, I asked what we should do; what would spur the process along.
“I’ll tell you what would be amazing…if the actual users, like the farm groups themselves, would demand that something would happen,” Seidel said.
The (plastic) ball is in the court of our producers now. Though I don’t foresee the Recycling Council of Alberta giving up on their Pathway towards Zero Waste, we have to recognize they’re a not-for-profit, non-political organization — and they sound exhausted. But, can you blame them? Years of sound recommendations and discussion, and Alberta has yet to even attempt to develop a province-wide agricultural plastics recycling pilot, let alone legislation. Meanwhile, all other sorts of projects are happening across the prairies and beyond, and though we may have once been a leader in relevant research and recommendations, we’re still choking on dioxins and furans. And that is just not acceptable.
If agriculture aims to be sustainable and Alberta wants to excel in innovation, there’s a prime opportunity for cross-sector collaboration and success in this. Let’s re-start the discussion. Let’s get the ball rolling on recycling agricultural plastics, not just for ourselves, but for our families, our consumers and our land.