Approximately 62,000 tonnes of agricultural plastics are used in farming production in Canada, says a report from Cleanfarms, a national environmental stewardship organization. As Barry Friesen, executive director of the non-profit, notes, if all the materials were loaded into transfer trailers, it would create a line of about 2,800 trucks running several dozen kilometres long.
Cleanfarms’ goal, says Mr. Friesen, is to keep those plastics, like pesticide and fertilizer jugs, twine, bale and silage wrap, out of landfill. The organization, based in Etobicoke, with staff across Canada, has been developing and delivering nation-wide programs, working to eliminate waste with the support of a network of industry-sector partners.
“Our goal is to manage on-farm agricultural waste materials in the most sustainable way possible, and ultimately move to a circular economy,” says Mr. Friesen. Cleanfarms works with farmers across the country and more than 80 member companies, including manufacturers, distributors and retailers of crop protection and pest control products, fertilizers, seed, ag plastic, and equine and livestock medications.
The organization’s flagship program, collecting empty pesticide and fertilizer containers, has achieved a return rate of almost 80 per cent, says Mr. Friesen. In 2021, Cleanfarms collected more than 6.2 million empty jugs, and nearly 473,000 kilograms of empty seed, pesticide and fertilizer bags were returned. Cleanfarms also collects pesticides and livestock/equine medications for safe disposal.
In addition to partnerships with governments at all levels, says Mr. Friesen, Cleanfarms collaborates with industry groups to deliver programs. Cleanfarms collects and analyzes data to understand the evolving landscape, and designs and pilots programs that address emerging concerns and issues before they are rolled out.
Executive Director, Cleanfarms
The high success rates of Cleanfarms’ waste recovery programs, which have largely relied on voluntary, industry-driven participation, are “a testament to the agricultural sector’s appreciation of its important role in Canada,” says Mr. Friesen, who welcomes the renewed interest in recycling and the push towards harmonization of recycling services across the country.
A nation-wide commitment will help provide funding for collection and recycling of products, and the research and development of more sophisticated recycling facilities. These efforts will help to move towards a circular economy and result in agriculture that is even more sustainable than it is today, and Mr. Friesen believes “the quicker we can get there, the better.”
Due to these recycling programs, waste is being repurposed and transformed into new products, he says. For example, Cleanfarms has implemented a grain bag program in Saskatchewan, which is regulated by the provincial government, that recovers on average 64 per cent of the industrial ag plastic. The bags are delivered to a plant in Alberta that converts them into pellets, which are then transported to a manufacturer to be reused for other plastic products.
“Waste is making that full circular loop,” he says, and this brings “tremendous benefits to the economy and domestic markets.”
Currently, almost 100 per cent of the materials are recycled in Canada. And Mr. Friesen anticipates an increase in regional jobs as technologies evolve and operations expand with the demand for transportation and processing in local and rural communities.
Most importantly, it’s also a win for the planet, he adds. “We’re realizing tonnes of greenhouse gas savings, which will help create a healthier environment.
“We’re excited because we’re solving a waste problem for farmers. We’re creating jobs in the process, and we’re doing it in an ecologically viable way. Ultimately, it could be more affordable too, because using recycled content could be cheaper down the road than drawing raw resources out of the ground and manufacturing something new.”
While the work of Cleanfarms involves the entire value chain, including Cleanfarms’ members, Mr. Friesen also applauds the commitment of farm communities who “want to leave their land in as good or better condition than when they started.
“We don’t recognize enough the value of farmers’ work to get food on the table in as sustainable a manner as possible,” he concludes.
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