Improvements sought in grain bag recycling

Some landfills do not accept the plastic bags and burning them is illegal in Alberta because they release harmful toxins

A number of Alberta rural municipalities are pondering ways to recycle grain bags and keep them out of regional landfills.

Cypress County and the County of Forty Mile in southern Alberta are surveying taxpayers to find out what farmers do with their used grain bags, how many they typically use and whether they think their municipality should assist in recycling efforts for the bags.

Cypress County is accepting used grain bags from farmers with the intention of shipping them to a recycler.

Wheatland County, east of Calgary, is going one step further. It has a bag-rolling machine that it takes to farms.

Agriculture fieldman Russell Muenchrath said the county first approached the problem by lending a machine to farmers so they could roll their own used bags and take them to a plastics recycler.

“It was kind of hit and miss when they would accept them. Cleanliness was a big factor,” said Muenchrath.

“Ultimately, what we decided to do, as a service to our ratepayers, we would go out and start rolling the grain bags on farm.”

County employees get permission from the landowner to access the land, where they collect and roll the bags. Once a substantial amount has been rolled, the plastic is taken to the recycler.

As of last month, Muenchrath said they had rolled about 400 bags since they began collecting them in 2015 and the county receives $100 per tonne for the plastic.

“It’s a service where we are getting funds from selling this plastic, so it’s not a straight cost to the municipality,” he said.

“It’s working out really well. Producers appreciate it from a cost standpoint. I think we’re close to break even when you consider the cost it takes to landfill this plastic. There’s a cost to that.”

Farmers don’t need to have a lot of used grain bags to warrant a visit with the roller.

“We’ll kind of hit farmers that are in an area. We’re looking at it as a service,” Muenchrath said.

“If they have one bag and we’re able to fit that in, we’ll do that, rather than just waiting until they have a whole bunch pile up. The bags are cleaner if you can get them fresh off the extractor when they’re hauling the grain.”

The approach keeps used grain bags out of the Drumheller and district regional landfill, which is where at least some of the bags in Wheatland County would likely end up.

Muenchrath said other municipalities have contacted him, seeking solutions to the grain bag disposal problem.

Wheatland has the advantage of having a recycler within its boundaries, which keeps transport costs in check.

Merlin Plastics sources the material and has a joint venture arrange-ment with Crowfoot Plastics, operated by the Green Acres Hutterite Colony near Bassano, Alta.

Crowfoot turns the plastics into resin pellets, which are then sold to other buyers and made into various products.

Darrel Wolski of Merlin Plastics said the company is working with quite a few Alberta municipalities to accept used grain bags.

“We have a standard guide that we mail out to the farmers or the county that’s doing it and then we work with each individual farmer or the county … and then we make sure that the grain bags are rolled and meet our specs and then we can accept them,” said Wolski.

Grain bags have been in use on prairie farms for decades as a cheaper method of storage, but dealing with them once they’ve been used has been an issue from the start. Burning them releases toxins and is illegal in Alberta, although some farmers have disposed of them in that manner.

“Producers want to do the right thing. If there’s an option to recycle it, that’s obviously their preference rather than burning it or disposing of it in some way that isn’t environmental or doesn’t make sense to them,” said Muenchrath.

A 2015 survey among Alberta municipalities about agricultural plastics showed used grain bags are not always accepted at landfills and there are a variety of barriers preventing municipalities, companies and farmers from finding markets for used plastics.

The survey also showed a strong interest among agricultural fieldmen in finding recycling options for used bags.

Survey results can be found at bit.ly/2qSgOir.

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