By Mel Luymes
Late in 2021, Gary Forbes received a bale wrap compactor on his farm in Northern Bruce Peninsula. He is one of many Bruce County farmers now participating in the Building a Zero Plastics Waste Strategy for Agriculture pilot developed by Cleanfarms, a national non-profit that promotes agricultural stewardship.
Gary farms with his brother Rick, father Harvey and son Tyson; they feed 1,600 head of beef cattle over six locations near Lion’s Head. Wrapping bales in plastic is critical to maintain their quality and Gary estimates that over the winter they feed 30 bales a day. With the size of their operation, a compactor was the most practical option. Made by Lynn Leavitt, the bale wrap presser is essentially a wooden crate with a plunger attachment to a loader fork. It compresses the plastic wrap into neat four-foot bales that can weigh about 900 pounds and Forbes says it took about 45 minutes to press his first one. It took about two weeks to get the used material for one bale, but it saves a trip he’d make every three weeks delivering the used material to the nearby Eastnor Landfill.
Troy Cameron is the Public Works Manager at the Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula and runs a small herd of cattle on the Peninsula with his son. He says that plastic wrap collection and recycling has been a long-standing issue for the municipality.
For years, the municipality has accepted bale wrap and twine from local farmers and stockpiled it at their landfill site in hopes of finding a recycling market for it. Cameron says they have always accepted the used material for free because it was better than having it scattered around the Peninsula and it gave farmers an option besides burning, which has since been restricted by municipal bylaw. The growing pile of used plastic material has been a concern for the municipality and farmers alike.
The municipality is also partnering with Cleanfarms and will make good use of their relationship with an end-user in Quebec. Farmers can pick up large collection bags provided by Cleanfarms at the township office and the Eastnor site, where the municipality is accepting bale wrap, silage plastic, bunker covers and baler twine. Cleanfarms has three other collection sites, through arrangements with Bruce County municipalities, near Tara, Chepstow and Elmwood. The program does not accept netting, which is becoming increasingly popular on the Peninsula, says Forbes.
While most municipalities in Ontario won’t take plastic wraps or twine, they often send interested farmers to Don Nott. Nott is the owner of Switch Energy Corp and has been collecting plastic wrap from farms and marinas since 2011. He now has about 2,000 customers across Southern Ontario, providing large bags for material collection and on-farm pick-up. He charges $90 for 15 bags.
But Nott has also had serious challenges over the years to find and keep an end market for the materials. Recycling facilities opened and closed, promises were made, and contracts broken. Nott lost money year after year and, all the while, the stockpile at his Clinton area farm kept growing.
Nott said all of that changed in February 2021 when the price of plastic skyrocketed and his phone started ringing from international buyers. He now presses 1700-pound bales on his farm, and packs them into shipping containers bound for Southeast Asia, where it is cleaned and pelletized for re-use in the plastics market. He has shipped over four million pounds since last July.
While it might seem impractical to ship this material halfway around the world, it doesn’t surprise Viren D’Souza, who runs a custom baling and wrapping business near Peterborough. D’Souza runs an Orkel agricultural compactor that can make just about anything into plastic-wrapped round bales. While he’s heard of entire landfills overseas being dug, baled, transported, and converted to fuel sources, he’s also been approached to wrap local compost, garbage and plastics for long-haul transportation. But D’Souza notes that the global “garbage” markets are just that. They rely on cheap labour for processing and will rise and crash, depending on the price of oil.
As for the bale wrap from the Forbes farms, Cleanfarms will be delivering it to a domestic processor and it will feed an emerging circular economy, going into other packaging materials. But that will also depend on the material’s cleanliness. So far, Cleanfarms says they haven’t seen any issues with the quality from Bruce County farmers.
Lynn Leavitt farms in Prince Edward County and started U-Pac Agri Service in 2016. He built the compactor for Forbes, along with about 150 other Pac-It presses that he’s sold across Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. He sells his compactors for $750, basically the cost of materials, but the blueprints are available for only $20.
Leavitt’s Pac-It presses are a “made-in-Ontario solution” to collection, storage and transportation and have been used in similar pilot projects, including one further north that is a partnership between the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA). The material being collected there is destined for the newly constructed BBL Energy plant near Prescott and will be converted to fuel. As the BBL plant experiences significant delays, bales of material accumulate in Northern Ontario.
If the ag plastics are baled, covered, and protected from sun, rain and barnyard critters, Leavitt says they can maintain their quality for a few years. He has maintained a long-standing relationship with an Ontario processing plant due to the high quality of his materials. His bales can also be traced back to individual farms in case there are concerns with cleanliness.
To maintain cleanliness and quality, farmers must knock off any excess debris or mud and pack the bales when the material is dry. Leavitt says, from his own experience, that it doesn’t take too much effort to make a quality bale of material, but that the whole farm team needs to be on board and make it part of their routine.
Leavitt understands that the business model isn’t strong for bale wrap recycling at the moment. “In many cases, the bales are worth less than the labour it takes to make them,” he says. Leavitt collects and presses bales on his farm near Picton at no cost and they are picked up from the farm without payment. While he clearly hasn’t made much for his effort over the years, Leavitt is fueled by determination after many told him bale wrap recycling couldn’t be done here.
While their strategies are different, both Leavitt and Nott are hell-bent to make an Ontario program work and Ontario agriculture is better for their persistence. What seems to be missing, however, is co-operation across the larger value chain. That is where Cleanfarms comes in.
Cleanfarms is an industry-funded stewardship organization, and its members include crop protection, fertilizer, seed, animal health medication, and grain bag industries. In Ontario, Cleanfarms coordinates collection sites with ag retailers for jugs and containers up to 23 litres, bags, totes and drums. They also run collection days of obsolete/unwanted pesticides and livestock medications across the country and will be collecting again in Ontario in Fall 2022.
The non-profit received a one-million-dollar grant through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)’s Canadian Agricultural Strategic Priorities Program (CASPP) to take a deeper look into solving the agricultural plastics issues. In August 2021 they released a report, Agricultural Plastic Characterization and Management on Canadian Farms, that is available at cleanfarms.ca. The report estimates that Canadian farms generate nearly 62,000 tonnes of ag plastic waste each year, primarily from field crops, with 50 per cent being the LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) used in bale wrap (24 per cent), as well as grain bags (11 per cent), greenhouse film (six per cent) and silage bags/bunker covers (four per cent).
Cleanfarms is working with farmers to properly recycle or dispose of this material and also with industry to increase domestic processing and demand for the material. Last year, their programs recovered 76% of the empty pesticide and fertilizer containers.
“Cleanfarms currently collects about 6,000 tonnes of ag plastics annually through its existing programming. This figure is up from about 2,000 tonnes in 2015,” notes Cleanfarms Executive Director Barry Friesen. With support from AAFC, they have launched six pilots across Canada, Bruce County being one of them, to recover more of the LDPE plastics. “We anticipate we’ll see the recovery numbers climb year over year,” says Friesen.
“The technology for ag plastics recycling and conversion is here now,” says Leavitt. And Nott agrees. But the technology isn’t cheap, and the industry struggles to find start-up investment for processing facilities. Not only that, but once a facility is up and running, it needs a consistent supply of a lot of plastics to keep it viable.
A successful program would need to be a concerted and co-operative effort to bring regulators, industry, researchers and farmers to the table. Biodegradable and edible plastics for bale wrap are also being developed and may offer more solutions in the future. Legislation for the plastics industry to use more recycled materials would also support demand for a domestic recycling and conversion market, regardless of oil prices.
But for now, the success of plastics recovery programs will depend on farmers like Gary Forbes and the hundreds of decisions on the farm of where to put used plastics. “I understand why farmers would be skeptical of another program,” says Troy Cameron. He has seen programs come and go, but he knows that farmers do the best they can to protect the environment. And with growing consumer pressure over plastics in the environment, we’ve got to make it work this time.
From the stockpiles around the province, we know farmers can make the supply of used plastics and what we need is processing and end-use demand. Perhaps, and this is just the author’s opinion, if the used bale wrap were stockpiled at Queen’s Park, Ontario would get more action on this front. ◊