Imagine Your Farm Operation Without Plastics’: My Cleanfarms ‘Ag in Motion’ Talk

Author: Barry Friesen

Could farm operations function efficiently in the business of food production without plastic? It’s a question I put to growers at the Saskatoon Ag in Motion show last week.

I asked farmers to imagine their operations without plastics. I asked them to think about their machinery – tractors, trucks, combines, sprayers, pumps, electronics, miles of tubing and twine – all made with plastics; containers for seed, feed, fertilizer and herbicides plus grain bags, silage bags, bunker covers and more — plastic. There’s even a good chance, I said, that the clothes on their backs were made with polyester, which is plastic.

I challenged farmers to take stock of the role of plastic on the farm and in agriculture today within the framework of public concerns swirling around ocean pollution, microplastics entering the food chain, and intentional and unintentional littering of plastic items.

I said: “These issues are as real on the farm as they are in urban life except the agricultural chain has a special responsibility when it comes to plastic, particularly with single use containers that hold crop protection products”.

The reality is that as much as we do in the farm community to capture plastics for recycling or proper disposal, we still need to do so much more, and that falls on every one of us.

Farm sustainability and environmental health and well-being are inextricably woven together and everyone in the ag sector has a role to play – industry through extended producer responsibility both regulated and voluntary; supply chains by keeping farmers informed of the importance of recycling; farmers by ensuring they recover and recycle or properly manage packaging and product waste or unwanted and obsolete pesticides and animal heath products; and the reverse supply chain by offering collection networks and end markets.

Cleanfarms is the only national organization that operates programs that farmers can use to manage ag-plastic waste at the end of its life. Industry-funded and led, it operates programs to collect:

  • Pesticide and fertilizer jugs for recycling (25L and under)
  • Unwanted and obsolete pesticides and animal health products for secure, special disposal
  • Feed, seed and fertilizer bags for proper disposal
  • Bulk pesticide containers (25L and over) for recycling
  • Grain bags for recycling

At Cleanfarms, we are continually looking to expand our programs. In 2019, we’re conducting pilots in Alberta and Manitoba to find solutions to recover seed and fertilizer bags on a large scale in the prairie provinces.

And it’s all worth every minute of effort and every dollar of investment. Why? It helps keep our farm communities clean.

Recycling turns plastic jugs, bulk plastic containers and grain bags into farm drainage tile and garbage bags. In our secure disposal programs, we deliver other materials to a hazardous waste disposal site or an energy from waste recovery facility. Last year, Cleanfarms recovered more than 1,500 tonnes of grain bags – more than 10,000 bags – in Saskatchewan for recycling. Saskatchewan is the only province that has a government regulated program to recycle grain bags, but both Manitoba and Alberta have Cleanfarms-led pilots that are underway (Manitoba) or will be soon (Alberta).

The answer to the question of the benefits of plastics in farm operations is that they contribute significantly to efficiency and farmers’ ability to do their jobs effectively. But using plastics comes with a responsibility to manage it all properly at end of life. We encourage farmers to contribute to agricultural sustainability and clean communities by taking empty containers, grain bags and other end-of-life plastic materials to collection locations for recycling and proper disposal.

It’s all about contributing to a positive all-around image of agriculture in Canada.

Barry Friesen is general manager of Cleanfarms