Farmers turning plastic waste into new crop

By Phil Crawford

NZ farm
In most town and cities you can put your recycling out at the kerb to be collected. But what happens in the country? Phil Crawford digs out his gumboots for the plastic harvest.

One of my jobs when I was growing up on a farm in the ‘60s and ‘70s was to get rid of our household rubbish. That meant taking it across two paddocks by wheelbarrow and dumping it over a small bank close to a creek. As well as our household rubbish, our small dump included pieces of old machinery and empty containers. On other farms I remember seeing whole vehicles dumped in valleys of rubbish. I also recall the occasional bonfires for getting rid of anything that could be burnt. Even when we moved into town, we used an incinerator to get rid of our more combustible rubbish.

A few decades later that all seems unbelievable. However, a quick Google search reveals that the traditional approach to dealing with waste on farms involves the 3Bs – burning, burying or bulk storing. Good to know we weren’t the only ones, but what are farmers and growers doing today?

Driving around New Zealand I’ve often wondered what happens to all the plastic you see wrapping those giant hay bales, or covering silage stacks, after it has been used. Please tell me it’s one of the 3Rs – repurposed, reused or recycled – and not one of the 3Bs?

The good news is that Plasback, a Christchurch-based business, started thinking about this years ago and in 2006 introduced a nationwide scheme to collect the wrap so it could be recycled into an alternative to plywood called Tuffboard, which is made in New Zealand. Tuffboard is used in a variety of farm applications including signs, barge boards under feed barriers and for use in deer, sheep and cattle handling pens.

Farmers bundle their sorted plastic waste into large bags which are then collected from their property for a fee.

“We developed the scheme because our customers were saying they liked using silage and bale wrap because it did a great job but they didn’t like the mess it was leaving behind. They were looking for a solution,” says Plasback General Manager Chris Hartshorne.

In the first year Plasback collected nine tonnes. The scheme has grown steadily over the years and is now used by an estimated one in every four farms in New Zealand. As well as bale silage wrap it recycles polypropylene bags and twine, plastic drums and vineyard nets. In the last three years the scheme has really taken off, says Chris.

“Two years ago we recycled about 2000 tonnes of plastic waste. Last year it almost doubled to 4000 tonnes. That’s enough to go around the world five times.

“There’s a lot of growth still to go and we’re seeing that there are a lot of farmers and growers that want to do the right thing, plus they’re being forced to do the right thing. There are a lot of farm assurance schemes that demand that farmers have some sort of accountability for all the waste that’s being generated.

“Farmers are like any other segment of society. They’re concerned about all this plastic in the environment and it’s got to be dealt with. We’re also working with rural businesses that want to act responsibly with their plastic waste. It’s the same story. The pressure is coming back up the supply chain from farmers or other users. They’re saying to suppliers ‘I’ll buy this product from you, but are you going to help me get rid of this waste when I’ve used it?’”

Tony Wilson, the General Manager at Agrecovery, agrees that farmers want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Agrecovery provides programmes to help farmers recycle their plastic waste and safely dispose of unwanted agrichemicals. It provides free recycling for plastic containers from over 3000 of the most common agricultural-chemicals, animal health and dairy hygiene products sold in New Zealand.

“There’s no doubt that as stewards of their land, farmers want these programmes to collect empty agrichemical containers, drums and tanks, so that recycling becomes a standard throughout every rural community,” says Tony.

“Supporting farmers to preserve the environment by offering alternatives to the harmful disposal practices of burning, burying and stockpiling of waste is vital for the future of New Zealand.”

Agrecovery has more than 100 collection sites nationwide, plus collection events in areas without a permanent site. It also collects directly from farms when there are large quantities of plastic waste.

The plastic is shredded and delivered to New Zealand manufacturers to be made into products that include underground electrical cable cover, plastic plywood and rubbish bags.

Since the scheme started in 2007 more than 130 tonnes of chemicals have been recovered and more than 2800 tonnes of plastic containers have been recycled. Tony says that pre-Covid close to 50% of containers were being recycled by the scheme. During the lockdown farmers held onto their containers and volumes have been increasing steadily.

“This is a great result, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We won’t stop till we get to 100%”. We also want to see other projects get off the ground and be supported by industry and government to recycle and recover more on-farm waste.”

Earlier this year the government announced that farm plastics and agrichemicals and their containers were among six priority products for regulated product stewardship. That means those products must have end-of-life solutions put in place within the next three years. As a result, both Plasback and Agrecovery are expecting to be collecting a lot more plastic to be recycled in New Zealand.

The Sustainable Business Network has created a directory of product stewardship schemes and initiatives across 10 sectors in New Zealand. Both the Plasback and Agrecovery schemes are government-accredited and feature in the ‘Primary sector’ category of the directory. Other schemes in that category include Ravensdown fertiliser bag recycling, EPL’s polycycle for tree protectors and Zoetis New Zealand’s VetScan recycling.

Photo by Te Akatea on Unsplash