Putting a wrap on grain bags

A new grain bag recycling program is being rolled out across Saskatchewan this month.

The first of its kind in Canada, it will allow producers to bring their used bags to one of 20 recycling depots at municipal locations throughout the province.

Cleanfarms is administering the recycling program with funding assistance from Saskatchewan Agriculture.

The program is regulated by the Agricultural Packaging Product Waste Stewardship Regulations.

Producers can drop off used bags for free until November. After that, they’ll be charged an environmental handling fee of 25 cents per kilogram when they initially buy the bags.

“We know that Saskatchewan farmers want to do the right thing. They just need the tools to do it, and fortunately this will provide that,” said Barry Friesen, Cleanfarms general manager.

The non-profit organization took over grain bag recycling in the province after Simply Agriculture Solutions’ pilot program wrapped up in December.

Funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, the six-year pilot collected and shipped more than 4,209 tonnes of material to recyclers since 2011. Friesen expects that total will grow as the permanent program expands.

“Even under a pilot program this past year, the preliminary numbers look like almost half of all the grain bags had been returned, which shows that there’s a great desire and need on behalf of the farmers to participate in this program,” he said.

Saskatchewan producers have used 15,000 to 20,000 plastic bags a year since the mid-2000s. They come in several lengths and a 250-foot bag weighs about 155 kilograms.

While many farmers participated in the pilot recycling program, others have stockpiled or buried them. Some have also burned them, although that became illegal in Saskatchewan Jan. 1.

Provisions under the Environmental Management and Protection Act allow courts to issue fines of up to $1 million a day when an offence occurs.

“Recent examples of illegal burning have resulted in fine amounts of several thousands of dollars,” Brady Pollock of the agriculture ministry said in an email.

“Offending parties are also required to cover costs associated with cleanup of the burn site, which often far exceed the actual fine amount.”

Friesen said 20 locations are being established in municipalities, selected on the basis of high grain bag use. Another 15 drop-off sites are planned for next year.

“There’ll be a small incentive that we will pay the municipalities and others that will collect these grain bags and they have to be collected in a certain condition so that we’re able to put them into a container and send them to resell for recycling,” he said.

The bags are stockpiled until a 53-foot shipping container can be loaded. Agreements are in place to sell them to plastic recyclers in North America and in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

China used to handle more than 50 percent of the world’s recycled plastic, but it stopped accepting used plastic last year.

Recyclers shred, wash, and pelletize the plastic bags before selling the material or manufacturing other plastic film products such as garbage bags.

Cleanfarms will generate revenue from selling the plastic bags to recyclers, but it won’t cover the cost of collecting, transporting and administration.

“We operate Cleanfarms as a not-for-profit, so we can’t make profit,” Friesen said.

“We net everything out and here’s what the cost is per kilogram…. The fee that we have developed is a net of any extra funds.”

He said the provincial government’s operating budget for Simply Agriculture Solutions’ pilot program cost $100,000 to $200,000 a year.

“Once November hits, there will be zero government funds or taxpayer funding that goes into the (Cleanfarms) program,” he said.

“It has to be a 100 percent paid for through the environmental handling fee.”

The program is modelled after other recycling programs, such as rubber tires and electronics, which levy environmental handling fees at the point of purchase.

As a result, farmers will see the price of grain bags increase by 25 cents per kilogram to offset the cost of the new program later this fall.

“Right now, we’re saying it’s probably going to be about 25 cents a kilogram, which would equate to around $40 per grain bag depending on the size. It goes by weight,” he said.

Instead of shipping the used plastic out of province, Friesen said there’s potential opportunity to team up with other organizations for further value-added service.

“We want to work hard to get it as efficient as possible so that we’d never have to deal with a Chinese syndrome again where they shut the doors on recycling. We’d love to do it locally.”

One such company is Eco-GenX, a Canora-based business that offers a mobile service across the Prairies to roll and haul away agriculture plastic bags directly from the farm for a fee.

Just over a year in operation and with no outside funding, the entrepreneurs have picked up and stockpiled about half a million kilograms of plastic (3,100 bags) with the plan to build a recycling plant in the province that would shred, wash and pelletize the plastic.

Company founder Dallon Leger said the Cleanfarms announcement will put a damper on their business model and expects his pick-up business to significantly decline. However, he remains optimistic.

“We are still moving forward with the (recycling) plant to process here in Saskatchewan. We can still work with Cleanfarms. Their plans as of right now are to export this stuff to Malaysia. If we can get our plant up and running, we can still be the answer,” he said.

“Taxing the farmers almost $800,000 (25 cents per kg multiplied by 20,000 bags) a year to export this overseas isn’t the solution in my opinion, but that’s the best solution they (Cleanfarms) have right now.”

Shane Stewart, who grows grain near Stewart Valley, said he’s not happy with Cleanfarms’ recycling model because he will now be paying three times: up front at purchase with the new handling fee; afterward when he rolls, loads and transports the bags to a depot; and his time, fuel and equipment costs.

Stewart has been using Eco-GenX’s services since last year to haul away his grain bags rather than participate in the pilot program’s depot system.

He said having his grain bags picked up is the most cost effective option for him, as opposed to dropping them off.

“I was just happy because I didn’t have to load them up and take them somewhere and then unload them somewhere myself,” he said.

“My biggest concern is I have to make the time to pick them up, get a trailer, drop them off, and it’s just more work again for us. A lot of times I’m looking for ways to do things easier, and that’s why I like the way his (Eco-GenX) program works.”

Stewart wants to see a formula that encourages and rewards farmers to recycle. He’s in favour of an environmental handling fee in the purchase price but would like to see a portion of the levy given back to the farmer when the bag is returned.

“Make it so people have the incentive to return stuff,” he said.

However, Brady Brown, who farms near Milestone, said a refund at point of return would not work because of the difficulty in monitoring and controlling the quantity and quality of returned bags.

“If you pay per kilogram, how are you going to weigh every bag that comes in, and then there’s rotten grain in these bags,” he said.

“I just don’t know how you would regulate getting a refund when you bring the bags in. Really, for logistics, the only option to go is with an upfront price.”

Brown sees merit in expanding the system to include picking up bags as well as farmers hauling bags to a depot.

“That would be ideal, to have the bags stay here, get recycled and use the byproducts, but they need to make it convenient for guys, too,” he said.

“If you have to take your bag 60 or 70 miles to drop it off at a collection point, you can’t expect guys to do that.… If a farmer has 20 grain bags, he could call Cleanfarms and they could have this guy (Eco-GenX) come and pick them up as opposed to expecting the farmer to haul them somewhere.… Guys are busier now than they’ve ever been.”

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