Canada’s agricultural industry growing the future of recycling

Proper stewardship is key to maintaining access to the plastics needed on farms

Agricultural waste materials such as grain bags and plastic containers are being remade into things like drainage tiles and plastic bags.

Farmers earn their living from the land, and they work hard making sure their fields and farms remain healthy, well managed and free from litter and waste.

This is an investment that benefits all of Canada, given the importance of our agricultural industry to feed our country and the world.

While necessary to Canada’s agricultural industry, at the end of the day, farmers are left to manage waste materials that include traditional bags, grain bags, silage wrap, netting, and twine made of plastic. Over the years, farmers have stepped up their efforts – working with municipal and retail collection partners alike – to properly manage this material through recycling and safe disposal.

This commitment to eliminate plastic waste from our environment is shared between all Canadians, who are doing their part to recycle. With a renewed focus on programs that shift the cost of recycling from municipalities back to plastic producers and users I believe we can eliminate waste from our environment without sacrificing the plastics that so many of us rely on.

Fortunately, on-farm recycling is expanding in Canada. I work with Cleanfarms, an industry-funded, not-for profit organization that operates programs on behalf of the agricultural industry to manage waste materials from crop inputs, crop storage and animal health products. Now in our 10th year, we operate throughout the entire country to collect plastic pesticide and fertilizer jugs and containers, among other items, for recycling. In our largest nationwide program for pesticide and fertilizer jugs (23 litres and under), farmers returned nearly 5.5 million containers in 2019. Since this program started 30 years ago, Cleanfarms has collected over 131.5 million jugs.

We operate a system on behalf of the 70 companies that manufacture and sell agricultural products to farmers across Canada. These companies provide funding to make sure the waste materials from their products and packages are kept out of the environment using what’s known as an “extended producer responsibility” approach. Farmers from coast to coast bring agricultural containers and other items to Cleanfarms collection sites, knowing they will be managed responsibly, either through recycling or safe disposal.

The success of these programs points to the power of implementing collaborative programs to manage plastics and incentivize Canadians to adopt a zero-waste outlook.

Additionally, innovation is key. At Cleanfarms, we are focused on transforming more recycled goods into brand new plastics products that farmers can use on the farm, year after year. As new products become more widely used, they call for new management approaches – in agriculture and elsewhere. In 2018, with our partners we rolled out a new grain bag recycling program in Saskatchewan which is currently the only government-regulated extended producer responsibility program of its kind in Canada. In 2019, this program helped farmers in the province recycle 2,256 tonnes of used plastic grain bags in 2019, a 44 per cent increase in volume over 2018.

Ag waste materials such as grain bags, agricultural plastic containers and bulk plastic containers – that are essential to a successful harvest – are turned into such items as farm drainage tile and plastic bags. By recognizing waste materials as a valuable resource, we can eliminate plastic waste from the environment, create new jobs in recycling, while still helping farmers feed Canada.

While Saskatchewan’s grain bag recycling program has been an overwhelming success, we’ve also launched similar pilots in Manitoba and Alberta in partnership with local provincial governments. In fact, Cleanfarms will be transitioning the Manitoba government-funded agricultural plastics pilot projects into a permanent, industry-funded stewardship program in 2021.

The results speak for themselves. Supported by the ag industry, Canadian farmers, retailers, collectors and recyclers consistently demonstrate their commitment to the environment by participating in convenient programs to help reduce waste and promote sustainability in agriculture. Collaboration between government and industry is an important key to these effective waste management programs and I’m proud to work in an industry that offers opportunities for this industry to contribute to ag plastics producer responsibility programs, and innovate advanced recycling technologies.

Barry Friesen is the executive director of Cleanfarms.

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