Farm plastic collector increases its recovery rate

Prairie farmers returned more than 3.6 million plastic pesticide and fertilizer containers last year for the recycling program operated by CleanFarms.

Saskatchewan farmers provided 1.8 million of those and Alberta another 1.3 million in 2019, the 30th year in which containers sized 23 litres and smaller have been collected.

The grain bag recycling program in Saskatchewan collected 2,256 tonnes of plastic, an increase of 44 percent over 2018. A pilot program in Manitoba gathered up 51 tonnes of twine, grain bags, bale and silage wrap and in Alberta a three-year pilot project began that will see collection of grain bags and twine.

Nationally the program collected 214,618 kilograms of unwanted pesticides, along with 5,842 kg of obsolete livestock medications.

There are plenty more numbers in the CleanFarms 2019 annual report, which was released June 8.

“We’re starting to really see the gains,” said CleanFarms general manager Barry Friesen.

“We’re getting better numbers as well in what’s going into the market and, fingers crossed, we’re going to see some substantive increase in recovery rates.”

The number of smaller containers collected last year on the Prairies was actually lower than the previous year because adverse weather conditions resulted in less product being used. Friesen said that provided an interesting statistic for CleanFarms.

“The real surprise is how well we did. The fact that we’ve had increases in collections on virtually every program and even our small container program, while we had a slight decrease … we actually had an increase in recovery. So we’re quite pleased about all of that.”

Friesen said the three-year rolling average on collection of small containers shows a 65 percent recovery rate, a figure CleanFarms hopes to improve.

“Our goal is to get a minimum of 80 percent. Really we would like to get 100 if we can.

“We were especially pleased (that) our bulk container program had a substantive increase this past year as well. Its still in its infancy in terms of collecting all the bulk containers.”

The 2019 statistics show 55,369 non-deposit bulk containers were collected. These are the drums and totes that are becoming more popular among farmers. There was a 25 percent increase last year over 2018 numbers.

On the grain bag side, figures show more than 50 percent of bags sold are collected through CleanFarms programs after use.

“It begs the question, where are the others? Grain bags aren’t easily disposed of,” said Friesen.

He speculated some are recycled through private companies, although that’s unlikely to account for all of them.

Markets for used plastic were drastically disrupted two years ago when China refused to accept material from other countries, but Friesen said CleanFarms has “weathered the storm.”

“We have the resiliency. We’ve built up reserve funds to manage these downturns and things are turning around. There’s more and more recycling plants. We’re still hurting a little bit because of this downturn in the market but you know what? We’re moving 100 percent of our material. We’re not having to dispose of it in landfills or incinerators.”

The annual report indicates efforts by agricultural product manufacturers to use post-consumer recycled plastic in some of their packaging. That is being driven in part by various bans on single use plastics in the consumer market and concerns over the proliferation of plastics in oceans.

Friesen said the technical barriers surrounding use of post-consumer plastic in agricultural products are gradually being surmounted.

“I guarantee you that over the next couple of years we’re going to be seeing that post-consumer recycled content as a mainstay in virtually all plastic products, and there is no technical barrier to doing it,” he said, adding most major manufacturers have made commitments to address plastic waste.

CleanFarms is a non-profit industry stewardship organization funded by companies in the crop protection, crop storage and animal health industries.

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