Plastic recycling costs may be passed on to farmers

The price is likely to rise next year on a number of agricultural plastic products sold in Saskatchewan, including grain bags, bale and silage wraps and baler twine.

Those costs will likely be recouped through the prices of the products, meaning farmers would pay more at the retail level beginning early next year.

Architects of an agricultural plastics recycling program in Saskatchewan say recycling hundreds of tonnes of plastic used each year on Sask-atchewan farms will likely cost more than $1 million a year and could approach $2 million.

The groups in charge of developing a plan, CleanFarms and the Saskatchewan Agricultural Stewardship Council (SASC), are still hashing out details of the program, including how it will work, how much it will cost and how it will be financed.

The most likely scenario to emerge is a mandatory environmental fee, similar to what is charged on tires.

The concept of a refundable fee, similar to what exists for aluminum cans, was also discussed.

At a planning meeting in Saskatoon last week, early estimates suggested that operating a province-wide recycling program could cost $640,000 to $1.8 million a year, depending on how it is structured.

Based on those estimates, the price of agricultural plastic products could increase by five to 13 percent, beginning early next year.

Facilitators at the meeting stressed that those numbers are based only on preliminary cost projections.

Improper disposal of agricultural plastics, especially grain bags, is common in Saskatchewan.

Barry Friesen, general manager of CleanFarms, said the province’s farmers use 1,100 tonnes of grain bag plastic a year, the majority of which is burned or hauled to municipal landfill sites after it is used.

“The total North American market is estimated at 3,500 tonnes, so Sask-atchewan is one of the single largest users of the product,” he said.

Burning agricultural plastics is illegal in Saskatchewan, but it is still common, especially at night and in rural areas where the practice is unlikely to be detected or reported.

Rural municipalities are also struggling with the problem, and some RMs refuse to accept the used bags at municipal landfills.

Used grain bags provide an ideal environment for rats, which find shelter and grain under the plastic.

Under the right conditions, a single bag can provide shelter for dozens if not hundreds of rats.

Burning is widely recognized as the easiest and least expensive way to get rid of the plastic, but environmental experts say the fumes are toxic and burning causes unnecessary environmental risks.

Saskatchewan’s environment ministry announced last year that the province was initiating a process aimed at recycling agricultural plastics.

The province committed $75,000 to kick start the process and hired CleanFarms to develop a management plan and draft regulations that would support a province-wide recycling program.

The April 17 meeting in Saskatoon was the second consultation in that process.

CleanFarms and SASC are expected to submit their proposals to the province by June. The province has indicated that it would like to have a mandatory recycling program in place by April 2014.

Recycling used grain bags would be a costly and time-consuming process. It would probably involve rolling the used plastic with special machinery, loading the rolls onto trucks or trailers and hauling the plastic to remote sites, where it would be stored or processed.

Recycling companies say dirt, grain and rocks attached to the bags present challenges and can drive up processing costs.

People involved in developing the Saskatchewan program agreed it must be inexpensive and simple to administer. It should also minimize work for farmers.

Environmental fees attached to plastic products must be transparent and well understood by producers, they added.

Otherwise, farmers are unlikely to support the plan, and many will continue to burn or bury.

“Burning is just seen as the most quick and efficient way to do it,” said Sharon Barker, a director with Blacksheep Strategy, who conducted a study on farm plastic recycling.

“It really was clear, though, that if there was a convenient program that did have a reasonable expectation (for farmers), they would participate because it is the right thing to do.”

Friesen said CleanFarms is also meeting with provincial authorities in Manitoba and Alberta to discuss disposal issues in those provinces.

CleanFarms and SASC have set an initial target of recycling 60 percent of the agricultural plastics used in the province.

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