Excuse Me, Where is Alberta’s Agricultural Plastic Recycling Program?

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?

On-farm burial is costly, unsightly and unsustainable.

On-farm burial is costly, unsightly and unsustainable.

The Problem

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.

Potential Solutions

Why can’t I just burn it?
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
furans.
Dioxins and furans bioaccumulate, are known
carcinogens and have demonstrated negative
affects on the immune, nervous, endocrine and
reproductive systems of humans.
A couple of days ago, I wrote a rather newsy bit about Saskatchewan’s Grain Bag and Twine Recycling Pilot Project continuing into 2014. It started with government funding in 2011 and has received additional funding since, with the province intending to have policy around agriculture plastic recycling complete by 2015.

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.

Rolling a grain bag for recycling at Unity, SK.

Rolling a grain bag for recycling at Unity, SK. Photo Courtesy of Simply Ag Solutions Inc.

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.

Grain bags rolled and ready for transport.

Grain bags rolled and ready for transport. Photo Courtesy of Simply Ag Solutions Inc.

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.

 

 

Debra Murphy

Debra Murphy is a Field Editor based out of east central Alberta, where she never misses a moment to capture with her camera the real beauty of agriculture. Follow her on Twitter @RealAg_Debra

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2 Comments

Sharon McKinnon

Debra, while Alberta doesn’t have an ag plastics policy, our grain industry and Alberta Agriculture are working together to try to get something done about the growing supply of plastic and twine. We need both supply – an efficient way to gather the plastic waste – and demand in the form of markets for the plastic waste. We’re working on both. In the meantime Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development doesn’t see ag plastics as a critical issue for a recycling policy or a recycling fee since the volumes aren’t as big as other waste streams like construction waste. The Crop Sector Working Group, representing crop farmers and their crop commissions and Alberta Agriculture are collaborating on solutions. It won’t happen quickly but we will hopefully end up with a made in Alberta system that works for everyone and for the environment.

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Terry James

While “it’s not easy to swallow yet another cost to production”, I believe it is the best path to follow. We have recycling fees on many products in Alberta now, and there probably should be one on agricultural plastics as well. It’s unfair to expect others to pick up the costs of disposing of our waste, and such a fee would help better reflect all of the costs, including disposal costs, associated with using these products.

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