By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
It’s time farmers view bale wrap and other farm plastics as a commodity with value because when they see it as a commodity versus garbage, the real recycling can begin.
So says Kim Timmer, manager of stakeholder relationships for Cleanfarms, a not-for-profit organization that is already recycling farm-use plastics into tile drainage pipes. 2020 marks the organization’s 10th anniversary as it continues to launch pilot projects with three new ones starting in Bruce County this year.
Timmer was joined by two other speakers to take part in the Post-Plastic Forage Storage panel hosted virtually by the Ontario Forage Council in December: Lynn Leavitt, a Prince Edward County farmer who built his own plastic bag compressor to create plastic wrap bales and Erica Pensini, a researcher developing a biodegradable plastic-like film that can protect farm crops before naturally degrading into the soil. Both Leavitt and Pensini are hoping more farmers will participate in their plastic-capture and scientific research studies to encourage stewardly use of ag-plastics in Canada.
With funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Environment of Climate Change Canada, Cleanfarms has launched an extensive province by province study to identify the needs of farmers, recyclers and manufactures. This data will be released in early 2121 before Cleanfarms conducts a consensus planning session to discuss long-term planning. Timmer says farmers need to get on board and start collecting and storing plastics … but clean them first.
“When you collect plastics you are not creating a pile for the sake of creating a pile,” says Timmer. “You are collecting a commodity that someone else is going to use to create a new product. We want to market a good product.”
There’s a LOT of plastic to collect. Older data from 2011 reveals back then, farmers were using 7,000 tonnes of plastic per year. Of that 7,000 tonnes, 3,500 tonnes was from plastic film and 2,400 tonnes was from silage film and bale wrap. Those numbers will only have increased in 2021.
Before COVID-19 took over the news stories, Timmer reports the mainstream media was raising skepticism about the percentage of farm-use plastics actually being recycled. She says when farmers do market plastics to a company, they should ask the “who, what, where, when and how” of how the product is being recycled. If it isn’t being made into something new, it isn’t being recycled.
“There is a lot of pressure for those of us who are passionate about this issue to build trust about what we do,” says Timmer. “We need to build credibility.”
Cleanfarms collects a variety of plastics but the plastic being turned into drainage tile comes from small plastic pesticide and fertilizer containers, 23 litres and under. In 2019, farmers returned 5.5 million containers bringing the total volume of containers recycled since the program’s inception to 131.5 million. In Ontario, Cleanfarms also collects unwanted pesticides and old livestock/equine medications. They collect all pesticide and seed bags, rinsed pesticide and fertilizer containers up to 23 litres labeled commercial (ones labelled domestic are not collected) and emptied/rinsed totes and drums.
In 2021, Cleanfarms will expand their reach and launch pilot projects in Bruce County to collect and recycle twine, silage film and bale wrap. “We will experiment with different collection models and methodologies. The important thing is to start small and build a model that makes sense in the region. Then expand,” says Timmer.
Calling himself a seasoned farmer who feels an obligation to be part of “the fix”, Lynn Leavitt of Prince Edward County has taken the initiative to design his own plastic wrap compressor to create clean and compact plastic wrap bales destined for recycling.
He started U-Pac Agri-Service in the Spring of 2016 to assist farmers recycle in an efficient and cost-effective way. The process involves the farmer storing clean plastic on-farm before delivering it Leavitt’s farm, where he compacts it into transportable bales for manufacturing companies. Leavitt designed his own compactor by building a wooden box to hold plastic wrap, which is compressed with a metal plate controlled by a loader tractor.
“You can tell when the plastic is pressed enough when there is no spring back,” says Leavitt.
Creating the compactor was one part of his goal. Connecting with companies willing to buy it was another. He now sells the plastic for five cents per pound, U.S. dollars.
Once the agricultural plastic is compressed into tight, square bales, they are wrapped with an end cap or piece of plastic to keep them dry. “If we leave them uncovered, water filtrates through the bales and the pallets rot out quickly,” explains Leavitt. Plus, water makes the bales heavier.
Each compacted bale is numbered for traceability. “As Timmer talked about, we have to maintain our integrity. We can’t have rocks, hammers or dead animals in the bales. This helps us keep track so that if something needs to change, the farmer who brought the plastic in will get a phone call,” says Leavitt.
In terms of how he likes to see plastic come in, Leavitt references his own plastic wrapped bales. “Sometimes we can have up to two pounds of mud on each bale. So we need to get that off there. What I do is let it air dry and then brush it off,” he explains. While the bale still has a muddy stain, the mud volume has been removed and recyclers consider that extremely good.”
The packaged bales are put on wagons and run to a local warehouse. The owner warehouse is on board with the project and contributes use of forklifts and employee time to load the bales into a covered truck. It takes them about 45 minutes to load 45 bales.
Leavitt says more markets need to be found for the plastics and that will come once manufacturers can secure a steady supply of material. That’s why he urges farmers to keep cleaning and storing plastic. Markets will come, says Leavitt.
Recycling agriculture plastic is good but it would be even more ideal if farmers did not have to rely on plastics as tools to store crops and bedding material says Erica Pansini, a researcher with the University of Guelph who is developing bale and silage wrap from inexpensive and robust materials.
An environmental engineer, Pensini says most plastic wrap from farms end up in landfills where it cannot be recycled. Her goal is to develop a product that can wrap around bales that works like a plastic but can be composted. And she's getting close.
There are bioplastics being marketed but these are only biodegradable in special plants and cannot be composted on the farm. They are also costly and may not have the durability required to be effective.
Her research uses zein, a corn by-product that produces natural wraps with excellent performance that can be composted on the field to reduce plastic waste. Zein is so safe, it is edible though Pencini admits it's not tasty.
Zein is easy to fabricate and versatile, explains Pencini. Starting in powdered form, it is dissolved in alkaline water before salts or fertilizers are added to shift the ph balance. At first the liquid zein looks like bubble gum but once sprayed on whatever you want to cover, it provides a strong film. It retains its shape when wetted and locks in moisture.
The concept is attracting attention but farmers aren’t convinced a spray option is effective, admits Pencini. She is trying to develop prefabricated zein wraps and this has been more difficult. Zein films can become more rigid over time unless adequate preparation methods are used. An application of levulinic acid helps but then the zein film is not fully impermeable to water.
Pencini said the next stage of experimentation to the zein wrap was to add cutin, a waxy material from tomato and grape peels. Cutin is a hydrophobic (water repellant) polymer. This combination is currently usable for creation of plastic bags but needs more testing for on-farm solutions. Which is why Pencini is looking for farmers to partner with her to test zein-based films to find preparation methods to achieve both water repellant properties and flexibility (stretching and blending).
Her goal is to make these products economically feasible as well. While there is no getting around the fact that manufacturing costs of a biodegradable plastic are higher than traditional plastics, she says it's important to consider the cost to the planet. Climate change is happening, which will affect water resources. “If we factor in those things, we get closer to the real cost,” says Pencini.
Question and Answer Session:
Q. What do you think are the biggest barriers for producers to recycle plastics?
Leavitt: “I have to say from conversations I’ve had, for most farmers is the time it takes. Lots of guys like to zip the plastic down and run over it. They want someone else to come and take it away. I don’t see that happening.”
Q. How resilient are plastic recycling programs against oil prices?
Timmer: “Low prices of oil is a global phenomenon and it does reduce the price of plastics. So we’re starting to see leadership from government and corporations making commitments to incorporate recycled content into their products. That will increase the market.”
Q. What do recyclers actually do with the plastic?
Timmer: “Plastic from our containers (high density polyethylene) goes into drainage tile. Out west, where we collect a lot of grain bags, that plastic is often the same as silage wrap and these go into the north american market to be reused into plastic bags.”
Leavitt: “The folks I work with are in meetings and we are on track to make plastic lumber.”
Q. Is net wrap recyclable? Are end caps from bale wrap recyclable?
Leavitt: End caps are the same as silage bags. It's just that all different products have to be kept separate. Folks with the net wrap well, we will bale it up and then we’ll fund a solution for it. I can’t find a home for it until we have it. It's kind of like 4-H where you learn to do by doing.
Timmer: Netwrap is particularly problematic. It is made up for two different types of plastic which creates a technical barrier to recycling. Also, netwrap is extremely dirty at the end of life. We see farm plastics as a commodity and when you look at a commodity, you want high quality. When we say high quality, we mean low contaminati and by that, we mean less than 10 per cent contamination and that is really hard with net wrap.
Q. For producers who are interested in recycling and want to start right away, what can they do right away?
Timmer: They can change their mindset. I like producers to look at plastic as a commodity and that is a shift in thinking. When you think of it as a commodity instead of waste, that gets you thinking about contamination and keeping it clean.
Leavitt. I agree. The change of mindset.
Pencini: When I was a child in Italy, we had hay sheds. There was no wrap around bales. Hay was stored under a roof. I think, put the bales in a protected space and then you do not need plastic at all. ◊