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Recyclable materials compressed into large cubes are stacked at the Dufferin Waste Management facility in Toronto on March 12, 2009.

Darren Calabrese

Every year, tonnes of plastic waste are burned on farms around Alberta and across Canada. More is buried or dumped in municipal landfills.

Farm groups are working on better ways to dispose of the giant plastic bags and kilometres of plastic twine that have become essential tools for modern farming.

"We'd rather see them recycled than go up in flames," said Bryan Walton of the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association. "Can't we do something about this?"

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There may be something soon. Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips says the province is looking at its options.

Old-school twine that used to hold hay bales together has been largely replaced by plastic cords.

And farmers are increasingly turning to grain bags as a way to store their harvest. The giant bags that look like huge white caterpillars from the highway are useful when harvesting rented land or when steel grain bins are inconveniently distant on large operations.

Just one empty bag can weigh up to 300 kilograms.

And there are a lot of them.

In Alberta, a 2012 government study found most farmers were using some form of agricultural plastic, especially on larger operations. About 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste was being generated every year, largely made up of baling twine and grain bags.

The same survey found burning in an open fire or burying the plastic were common ways to dispose of it. Much was dumped in the nearest landfill. Only 17 per cent of farmers said they had sent plastic for recycling.

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"We feel there's a lack of options for agricultural plastics recycling in the province," said Tammy Schwass of the Alberta Plastics Recycling Association. "It's a great concern."

Burning plastics release potent environmental toxins such as dioxins. Buried plastic doesn't biodegrade.

Farmers know that. The Alberta survey reported a clear majority wanted to be able to recycle, but said there just wasn't anywhere to do so.

The issue is found across Canada.

Barry Friesen of Cleanfarms Inc., a non-profit organization funded by the plastics industry, estimates about 40,000 tonnes of mostly plastic waste is created on farms across the country. Cleanfarms collects less than 10 per cent of that.

"Unfortunately, the disposal is often burning and burying," said Friesen, who said his group is the only one in Canada that specifically collects agricultural plastic.

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Rules for recycling vary widely across the country. Programs exist in every province for safe collection and recycling of pesticide and fertilizer containers.

Manitoba collects both grain bags and twine. Saskatchewan has just enacted legislation to collect grain bags after several pilot projects. Since 2011, 14 collection sites around the province have collected 4,200 tonnes.

Other than that, it's up to individual producers to decide how they want to get rid of those piles of plastic.

Alberta does have recyclers that specialize in such waste.

But Friesen said agricultural recycling is unlikely to get the economies of scale it needs to be viable without some form of legislated requirement. The federal government is only responsible for hazardous waste, so rules for plastic must come from the provinces.

Government control of any program would be unnecessary, Friesen said. Lawmakers would just have to require industry to provide recycling opportunities.

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"If you make a product or distribute it into an area, you have to be part of a program to manage it at the end of its life."

It could be similar to recycling programs that charge a buyer a fee for bottles or tires.

The program could be run by a third party such as Cleanfarms, which would set the fee required to fund it. Cleanfarms already administers Saskatchewan's program.

Walton said his members – who use large plastic tarps to cover the silage they feed cattle – are willing to consider a charge to get rid of the stuff.

"No one ever wants to pay more for anything. But if there's a knowledge that this will be recovered and recycled, I think there is some willingness to go along."

He'd prefer to see the fee set by someone other than the group collecting it.

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"If you're the contractor, I'm not sure you can also be on the inside of planning the program. I think there's a potential conflict.

"We need to take a very serious look at cost and maybe have a third-party assessment of that."

Producers need to have a voice in how any recycling program is run, he added.

A working group that includes government, recyclers, farm groups and municipalities is already looking at the idea for Alberta, said Phillips.

"They're going to be bringing me advice reasonably soon on how we can better align many of our recycling programs (and agriculture) plastics for sure," she said. "We hear a lot from municipalities on this issue."

Saskatchewan consulted with Alberta before setting up its program. Phillips said her province will do the same.

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Recycling is more likely to work if the two provinces can work together to create a single large market, she said.

"When you identify a large enough market for these recyclables, that's really what becomes the pull for what to do with the materials.

"So much of this is tied up with creating the market for the materials, so co-operation makes sense."

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