Cleanfarms has national data that will help inform improvements to agricultural plastic recycling
By Jackie Clark
Cleanfarms recently completed and published their benchmark agricultural plastic waste characterization research from across Canada in a report submitted to Environment and Climate Change Canada.
The research “gives us a nice roadmap of how we get to where we want to be. Ultimately, our goal is zero plastic waste in agriculture,” Barry Friesen, executive director of Cleanfarms, a national not-for-profit organization, told Better Farming.
“We had done waste characterizations in each of the provinces over the past dozen years or so,” he explained. But this was the first of it’s size and scope. The report contains new data on the maple syrup industry, more details from the horticulture sector, as well as looking at plastic waste in the cannabis industry for the first time.
However, unsurprisingly to Friesen, field cropping generates 59 per cent of the national tonnage of agricultural plastic waste. When broken down by province, 22 per cent of agricultural plastic waste is generated in Ontario, and another 23 per cent in each Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The most common plastic waste type is low-density polyethylene, which is used more and more for products like twine and wrap.
“My first job was on a dairy farm in the 70’s and we didn’t wrap anything in plastic,” Friesen explained. They used twine and drying barns. “Fast-forward to today and virtually all the twine and netting being used is plastic, and then (farmers) wrap a lot of the hay. The ag industry is continuously finding new uses for plastic because it’s relatively easy to come by and low-cost, but the reality is, in the past, when they first started using plastic, they never had to recycle it.”
Using plastic products allows agriculture to be more efficient.
“The key thing is, how do we manage that plastic?” Friesen asked. “The plastic itself is a resource. Now that we know how much is being generated, and where, we can plan recycling resources to keep this plastic in the economy, make new things out of it, and the ultimate goal for recycling is to make the same product out of the old product.”
Some of this work is already underway.
“We have six major pilot projects across the country from B.C. all the way to Prince Edward Island where we set up shop to tackle collecting these materials, figuring out the best way to collect them. Every region is a little bit different because of different weather, different infrastructure,” Friesen said.
Those pilot projects involve 1400 collection locations. Project staff are working to understand how to efficiently collect and recycle agricultural plastics, which is different from municipal plastics recycling processes.
“The ultimate goal is what we call extended producer responsibility,” Friesen explained. Provinces “will put in requirements for the manufacturers or the brand owners to set up and fund recycling systems.”
Cleanfarms has the data and experience that can help inform the infrastructural requirements of those systems.
“Currently we’re collecting 10 per cent of all ag plastics that are out there. There’s a lot of volume still to get,” Friesen said. 100 per cent is the goal.
“Some of our members that make these materials are very interested in getting our plastic back, so they can incorporate it into new products,” he added. Plastics are “a resource, as much as the material that agriculture is growing. We want to keep it in the Canadian economy, we will create jobs as a result of this, and it’s really a positive process. Both farmers across Canada and Canadiens in general support this work.”
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