They’re big and unwieldy, but farmers urged not to burn grain bags

A pilot project saw collection depots set up in Pearson, Portage la Prairie and Neepawa, 
with an eye to establishing a province-wide recycling plan

In addition to being illegal in most provinces, burning used grain storage bags is bad for the environment and anyone downwind.

But what do you do with the huge, unwieldy pieces of plastic, which can weigh up to 350 pounds?

The bags are an inexpensive way to store grain and on many large operations, more economical than trucking grain to bins located far away. Saskatchewan farmers go through about 12,000 to 16,000 of the single-use bags every year, and the practice is becoming more widespread in Manitoba, particularly in the western side of the province where operations are larger and many are cropping fields far from their home quarter.

Some bags are recycled if there’s a local depot that accepts them, and some farmers creatively reuse them as water slides or pool liners. But many go to landfills, are buried, or — worst of all and the law notwithstanding — are burned. (In Saskatchewan, it’s estimated one-third of the bags are burned.)

“The burning of grain bags in the open results in the generation of harmful toxins that eventually end up in the air, soil and water,” says Barry Friesen, general manager of CleanFARMS, a not-for-profit industry stewardship organization.

“A lot of the grain bags are burned in place, which is also the place where we grow our food. It’s really not a good practice at all and not recommended.”

Grain bags are made from polyethylene, which produces an array of toxic substances when burned. Those with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are especially susceptible to smoke from burning grain bags and just one exposure can cause serious complications in their illness.

Although burning of grain bags is not yet illegal in Manitoba, the practice is highly discouraged, says a Manitoba Conservation spokesperson.

It’s also a huge loss of resources, says Friesen.

“Plastics are made from petroleum which is a non-renewable resource,” he says. “Recycling these materials results in energy and other resource savings.”

Of course, farmers know all this, says Friesen.

“They want to be good stewards of the land,” he said. “The problem is that often farmers are having to resort to burning because there is no other option for disposing of them.”

When farmers have the option to recycle grain bags, at least a quarter of them do so. About two-thirds of Prairie farmers surveyed by CleanFARMS are also very supportive of the idea of provincial regulations that would make it mandatory for bag manufacturers to fund programs for their collection and recycling.

But recycling programs are not widespread and there is currently only one private recycling company in Alberta which accepts grain bags. However, pilot recycling programs for grain bags have been initiated in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in association with CleanFARMS and provincial stewardship groups.

In Saskatchewan, this has resulted in the establishment of a permanent, province-wide recycling program for grain bags, and other agricultural plastic films such as silage and bale wrap, as well as baler twine.

Manitoba’s pilot project was funded through Green Manitoba and established three collection depots in Pearson, Portage la Prairie and Neepawa.

“Manitoba Conservation in its Tomorrow Now Green Plan has included grain bags and silage wrap and twine as products that it knows can be recycled and targeted for programs,” says Friesen. “The province has committed to developing a recycling program for these products and the first step was providing funding for the pilot project to work out the logistics.”

The pilot project winds up this September, when the material collected over the last year will be baled by Portage and District Recycling Initiative, a non-profit partner organization.

“We anticipate the volumes will be small because it wasn’t a widespread program,” says Friesen. “But it will give us some valuable information.”

One lesson learned is the challenge of bundling up 250-foot-long grain bags, getting them on their trucks and then to the collection depot. Pearson’s municipality decided to purchase a bag roller to solve the problem, which it lent out to farmers. Pearson ended up collecting, by far, the highest number of bags.

Landfills, especially in Saskatchewan, are starting to refuse grain bags due to the amount of room they take up. That increases the need for recycling, says Friesen.

“Stewardship is a shared responsibility and the industry may include those costs in their price to recover the costs for the management of these things, but it also relies on the end-user to do their part by taking them back,” says Friesen. “What we would like to see in the long run is a stewardship program where industry is willing to step up to the plate and pay for the collection and shipping to market of these products.”

Manitoba already has a successful fertilizer and pesticide container recycling program, and a large percentage of this material ends up being remanufactured into farm drainage tile. All plastics have different properties and will end up in a variety of products.

But the market potential is large, says Friesen.

“Recycling is now a $3-billion industry in Canada,” he says.

A recycling surcharge would add about five to seven per cent to the cost of a bag, but only five per cent of farmers surveyed said they would be opposed to such a program.

It’s a cost that should probably have been built in from day one, adds Friesen.

“They are using a grain bag because they can avoid the cost of a new steel bin and they can store the material right on the field where they have harvested it and, in some cases, save a drive of 20 or 30 kilometres down the road where the bins are,” he says.

“In Canada, extended producer responsibility and getting the industry involved and developing solutions for managing these products is now a fact of life.”

The Manitoba survey:

CleanFARMS surveyed 300 Manitoba farmers in 2011 about the types of agricultural waste products they generate and how they dispose of them. Only 11 per cent were using grain bags and their method of disposal were

  •  31 per cent reused them;
  •  11 per cent returned them to a collection site;
  •  nine per cent stored the bags and plan to deal with them later;
  •  eight per cent went to landfills;
  •  five per cent were taken to town recycling facilities;
  •  four per cent were burned;
  •  three per cent were returned to the retailer;
  •  29 per cent didn’t say how they were disposing of the bags.

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