2020 a success for collecting agricultural waste

As the final days of 2020 wind down, we can look forward to the new year with optimism that we will wrestle Covid-19 into submission. However, we cannot let 2020 go into the history books with only the Covid story to mark it. We can celebrate memorable achievements, too.

For one thing, at Cleanfarms, we celebrated our 10th anniversary. In the decade since 2010, we’ve gone from operating two programs to collect empty pesticide jugs and obsolete pesticides to operating five permanent programs to capture small pesticide and fertilizer containers and grain bags for recycling; recover non-deposit drums and totes; and collect seed and fertilizer bags in eastern Canada and unwanted and old pesticides and farm animal health medications nationally for safe disposal.

In addition, we have been operating pilot programs in Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to point the way to recover more ag plastic waste for products like used twine, grain bags and silage wrap. Giving farmers opportunities to recycle plastic waste not only ensures that it stays out of the environment but also reinvests the raw materials and energy into a circular economy, creates green jobs, inspires innovation in agricultural packaging and contributes to greater sustainability in agriculture.

Covid delays

2020’s COVID challenges did create a delay in getting our container collection programs underway in many areas of Canada to ensure we minimized the spread of the virus; however, once social distancing protocols were properly in place, all collections began. Despite the delay, we are optimistic that farmers may have set a new record for returning small pesticide and fertilizer containers (23 litres and under) for recycling.

Final results will be calculated in the new year, but it appears that farmers were eager to return more empty containers than ever before, helping Cleanfarms get past the 65% return rate we’ve been holding at over the past few years. In 2019, farmers brought back nearly 5.5 million containers so we have a big number to top. Similar positive results may be true for the return of non-deposit pesticide and fertilizer drums and totes, too.

It looks like grain bag recycling across the Prairies enjoyed a stellar year, as well. Through its Saskatchewan office, Cleanfarms has been running the government-regulated grain bag recycling program in the province since 2018. In 2019, Saskatchewan farmers recycled 2,256 tonnes of used plastic grain bags, a 44 per cent increase in volume over 2018. So far in 2020, we know SK farmers have recycled just over 2,700 tonnes, a 20% increase over last year!

And it keeps getting better.

The unwanted pesticide and old livestock and equine medications program is another success story. Preliminary results show that this program, which collected materials in British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley, Southern Saskatchewan, Quebec and Prince Edward Island, enjoyed excellent participation from farmers bringing in even more materials in most areas than they did three years ago when we were last in those regions.

What’s ahead for 2021?

I’ve been in the business of resource recovery and waste management for more than 25 years and this year feel more optimistic than ever about the innovation, new developments and opportunities for plastics used for packaging and one-way products. The degree of effort that ag industry stewards of plastic packaging have been putting toward finding solutions to contribute to the sustainability of plastics is phenomenal. In the agricultural sector, the 70 plus member companies of Cleanfarms want to ensure that the products they market are safe, reliable and meet product standards, both for the products and for the packaging.

Farmers want the assurance that when they use these products, options are available to manage the packaging or the used product at end-of-life, too.

Cleanfarms members are at work now figuring out how to transition packaging to more sustainable options. Fewer jugs, more totes and reusable containers, greater use of post consumer recycled materials will be part of the strategy. Many of these circular economy improvements won’t be obvious. Farmers won’t see the changes, but they’ll be there. What they will see is more opportunities to recycle, expanding their ability to leave their land as good or better than they got it.

Barry Friesen is the executive director of Cleanfarms and has led the organization since its creation in 2010. Cleanfarms is an agricultural industry stewardship organization that contributes to a healthier environment and a sustainable future by recovering and recycling agricultural and related industry plastics, packaging and products. It is funded by its members in the crop protection, seed, fertilizer, animal health medication and grain bag industries. It has offices in Lethbridge, Alberta; Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; Etobicoke, Ontario; and St-Bruno, Quebec.