Who is responsible for recycling plastic bags on the farm?

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  • Woven polypropylene bags used for animal feed are not recycled because it is not economical to do so
  • Millions of these bags enter New Zealand from China and are burned or buried on the farm, or end up in landfills
  • The agriculture industry should take collective responsibility to recycle these bags

Plastic bags used for animal feed create large amounts of waste that no one wants to recycle because it makes no money, says a rural plastic waste collector.

Neal Shaw, commercial director of Plasback, said that only 10% of a small woven polypropylene bag could be recycled, and because it was uneconomical to pay to collect them, these bags went to landfill.

There was, however, a desire to recycle plastics from silage bale wraps, as recyclers could recover 60-70% of them and turn them into other salable products. But the industry shouldn’t just focus on those returns and take collective responsibility to clean up even when there was no profit to be made, Shaw said.

Currently, farmers bought bins and lined them with large collection bags, which were then filled with up to 200 bales of silage. Collection bags were collected at a cost, Shaw said.

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Plasback has collected over 21,000 tons of silage film and other used plastics from farms over the past 15 years. There has been a 20% increase in bin sales over the past year and an exponential increase in the sale of collection bags showed that farmers want to take responsibility for their waste, Shaw said.

The increase in recycling efforts was particularly noticeable after the launch of Fonterra’s Co-operative Difference initiative last year, Shaw said.

As much as 10 cents of Fonterra’s shareholder milk payment came from on-farm sustainability efforts. Recycling was a way to earn the payments, Shaw said.

Farmers are acting responsibly and recycling silage bale packaging, but they have no one to collect the small bags of feed or mineral supplements.  Millions of these bags arrive in New Zealand each year from China and are either burned, buried on the farm or end up in landfills, explains Neal Shaw.

Warwick Smith / Stuff

Farmers are acting responsibly and recycling silage bale packaging, but they have no one to collect the small bags of feed or mineral supplements. Millions of these bags arrive in New Zealand each year from China and are either burned, buried on the farm or end up in landfills, explains Neal Shaw.

But it was time sellers and importers of polypropylene bags took responsibility and contributed to the recycling costs of other plastic products, Shaw said.

However, the polypropylene bags were of such low value that farmers had to pay fees to processors to collect them, Shaw said.

“While Plasback can cover the costs of processing, baling and shipping used silage packaging by selling it to recyclers, it is not possible to do so with small woven polypropylene bags. If we were to collect these little bags from farms, all we could do is store them, throw them away, or waste money giving them to a recycler,” Shaw said.

Collection could be the same as silage, Shaw said.

“Companies that supply the plastic should have a mechanism for their waste to be recycled and help defray the costs of doing so,” Shaw said.

Small woven polypropylene bags are not cost effective to recycle and seem to be ignored in the waste stream.

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Small woven polypropylene bags are not cost effective to recycle and seem to be ignored in the waste stream.

“This goes against the government’s decision to make agricultural plastics a priority product under the Waste Reduction Act. By 2024, industry should have a recycling program in place for all agricultural plastic waste.

“If rural traders contributed to the cost of collecting the small 20kg woven polypropylene bags they sell, it would cover the costs of delivering them to a recycler,” Shaw said.

“It’s one thing to have ‘sustainability teams’ and ‘thought leadership,’ but it’s another to offer customers practical ways to manage waste and support them financially,” said said Shaw.

Farmlands chief operating officer Kevin Cooney said he was conducting waste minimization trials for feed and seed packaging, and working with an environmental consultant to explore packaging options alternatives. Farmlands had also invested in sustainability research.

Farmlands is a rural cooperative that provided agricultural advice, finance and agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and seeds.

While the work was in its early stages, Farmlands had been dealing with industry bodies to understand options for improving its packaging footprint, Cooney said.

Manufacturers Association executive director Michael Brooks said he was aware that recycling woven polypropylene bags needed special attention.

The association required all of its members to have Feed Safe NZ accreditation, Brooks said.

“We talk to Ag Recovery (a recycler) and get information about recyclable bags for animal feed. [We] will consider a standard for recyclable bags to be included in FeedSafeNZ following our cost investigation [and] product suitability is over,” Brooks said.

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