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Farmers welcome programs offered by Cleanfarms that advance their sustainability goals through recycling of grain bags, for example.

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During fall harvest on the Canadian prairies, grain and oil seeds are often stored in 60- to 100-metre-long plastic tubes called grain bags. What happens to these bags, which weigh 100 kilograms or more, after they’re emptied and rolled up?

Cleanfarms, an industry stewardship organization offering recycling solutions to agricultural communities, has now expanded its existing grain bag collection program in Saskatchewan to include pilots in Manitoba and Alberta. “These programs can’t come fast enough because farmers are looking for opportunities to safely manage and recycle non-organic material that arrives at the farm,” says Barry Friesen, CEO at Cleanfarms.

Cleanfarms, which bills itself as “the blue box for agriculture,” has been in operation for 10 years, building on a program that was started by industry in 1989, says Mr. Friesen. “We took over an empty pesticide and fertilizer container recycling program in 2010, with the mandate to collect non-organic waste materials that are generated on the farm and make sure they are properly recycled and safely deposed of.”

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As part of the voluntary container recycling program, farmers return about 65 per cent of all used small containers to recycling collection sites. Since then, bulk containers have been added to the mix, and Cleanfarms “recently expanded the program to include leftover chemicals and animal health medications, which need to be safely destroyed,” he says.

Cleanfarms follows the “three Rs hierarchy: reduce, reuse, recycle,” according to Mr. Friesen. “Reusing materials is highly beneficial, but not everything can be reused due to economic or logistic reasons.”

At least 40 per cent of products – such as seeds or pesticides – are already delivered in refillable containers. And while each supplier is making decisions on the management of reusable material or end-of-life options, Cleanfarms can provide valuable guidance.

“We are working on research to determine what kind of material is used across the country. We’re launching a new study, funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada,” he says. “Different types of farms and farming areas, such as dairy, grain and oil seed, horticulture and greenhouses, use different materials and have various needs that we have to adapt to.”

Advancing a circular economy model can also stimulate entrepreneurship, says Mr. Friesen. “Plastic, as a petroleum product, is a very valuable material, and we are hoping to identify market opportunities.”

A 2019 report by Environment and Climate Change Canada suggests that if 90 per cent of plastic would avoid landfill, that could increase revenues in the recycling industry to $3-billion and create 42,000 new jobs. “We can contribute to that, with our programs feeding processing plants,” he says. “This helps to keep the material in our economy and out of the soil, water and air.”

Farmers, who have traditionally taken materials to landfills or buried or burned them on the farm, welcome opportunities to advance their sustainability goals. “As stewards of the land, farmers realize they have to leave the land in as good as or a better condition for future generations,” says Mr. Friesen. “By managing resources in the most sustainable manner, they can achieve this goal.”

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Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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