• Photo: CleanFARMS

It may be illegal but burning agricultural waste plastics, like grain storage bags and twine, is still a common occurrence in Canada. In a lot of cases farmers just don’t have a lot of other options.

Earlier this month an article published in the journal Science listed banning the burning of agricultural waste as one of 14 methods that could significantly reduce global warming by 2050.

The article suggests that by targeting greenhouse gases methane and black carbon, more commonly known as soot, catastrophic climate change could be averted more quickly than if we focus only on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Methane and black carbon have a shorter atmospheric life span than carbon dioxide, which means the climate will respond more quickly to emission reductions of these two gases than it will to carbon dioxide emission reductions.

Technically, burning agricultural plastics has already been “banned” in Canada — it’s illegal. But the problem of plastics hasn’t gone away. Farmers still need a way to get rid of it and for most of them burning, burying or landfilling are the only options.

Recycling pilot projects for agricultural plastics have been popping up across the country and a few of the provinces seem poised to implement legislation forcing industry to take responsibility for the end-of-life management of these plastics.

A number of these pilot projects are run by CleanFARMS in partnership with various levels of government and other organizations. CleanFARMS is a non-profit funded by the agricultural industry that works to manage farm waste in an environmentally conscientious way.

According to CleanFARMS general manager Barry Friesen, the organization has launched pilot projects and studies in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. This week, it began work on a B.C. agricultural waste study.

A number of agriculture recycling projects already exist in various regions of B.C., and Friesen says CleanFARMS hopes to work with these programs to move towards creating a province-wide, permanent recycling program.

Ultimately, this is CleanFARMS’s goal in every province — to work with various partners to overcome some of the challenges involved with agricultural plastics recycling.

A recent study conducted in Alberta identified cleanliness of the plastics as a particular issue, along with concerns about sorting. It also found that the farming community and recyclers expressed interest in the program and suggested an education campaign as solution.

“Education needs to be directed at daily management practices to collect, and store, clean, separated product, as materials left in the elements for any length of time become highly contaminated with foreign materials,” says the study.

While education will probably solve most of the problems facing these recycling programs, the biggest problem is funding and it’s what’s keeping these projects as pilots, says Friesen.

All of the pilots currently in existence are government supported, he says, but that may change as new regulations come into force.

Some regulation for agricultural plastic already exists. For example, in B.C. companies are responsible for the end-of-life management of empty pesticide containers and Manitoba has regulations that hold industry responsible for recycling all plastic and paper packaging — including agricultural packaging.

Back in B.C., companies are also responsible for end-of-life management of paper and plastic packaging used in the home and the province has indicated that in the next few years this will extend to commercial products as well.

According to Friesen, the demand is there for the plastics and the interest is there from the farmers. The only thing that’s not clear is who’s going to pay for it.

“We’re sitting in B.C., an hour away is one of the biggest recyclers in Canada, that’s Merlin Plastics. They’re ready and willing to take all of the material, but to get it to them costs money,” he says. “It’s either paid directly by the users the farmers, by the municipalities or other forms of government or by the industry. We know in the end the user pays for it, but it’s about how you’re distributing that money.”