Protecting the Great Lakes: The Imperative of Recycling Agricultural Plastics

When the topic of plastic pollution arises, images of bottles, straws, and bags in our oceans often come to mind. Yet, plastic pollution is not exclusive to marine environments; freshwater sources, notably the Great Lakes, are similarly under threat. While the vast majority of shoreline plastic pollution is made of common consumer items like those mentioned above, it is not exclusive to them. If not properly managed, plastics from industrial sources, including from agriculture, can also be a contributor to this issue, making proper collection and recycling crucial. This is a complex issue that’s of vital concern to farmers across Canada and the bi-national Great Lakes region, and with the support of the agricultural industry, the solutions are taking hold and expanding. 

Agricultural Plastics: A Growing Concern

Agriculture, a bedrock of the Canadian economy, relies heavily on various plastic tools, including those used to package and transport pesticides, fertilizers, seeds, and animal health products. However, if these plastics are improperly discarded, like similar items, they can pose an environmental threat. If left unchecked, these plastics can find their way into our soils and, in some cases, our freshwater sources.  

Bale wrap is a vital tool that protects hay resulting in a longer lasting, high quality animal feed, but can be voluminous and for which recycling solutions are expanding.

This is not just a Great Lakes regional issue. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN has identified used agricultural plastics as an urgent problem to be addressed. In 2021 they released a document titled: Assessment of Agricultural Plastics and their Sustainability: A Call for Action.  The FAO has since committed to developing a voluntary Code of Conduct that will undoubtedly call upon all nations to improve collection and recycling programs for these materials.

Leading the Charge

Cleanfarms Inc. is an industry owned not-for-profit organization committed to collecting agricultural plastics and chemicals with a goal to prevent their disposal in landfill or the environment. Across the country, many permanent programs are financed by industry and provided free of charge to farmers. Despite an impressive national collection rate of over 75% for 10 litre HDPE pesticide and fertilizer containers, as well as for bulk HDPE pesticide containers, and even higher rates in the Great Lakes region, these efforts alone aren’t enough. 

Small ag containers (under 23L) that have been emptied, rinsed, bagged and managed at a Cleanfarms collection site, await transportation for recycling into new products that can be used back on the farm.

Current Cleanfarms collection programs in the Great Lakes Region result in about 10% collection of the agricultural plastics generated in the area. In contrast, some areas have gone much further.  For example, Manitoba and Quebec have put mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies in place, covering a wider range of agricultural plastics. In response, Cleanfarms has been able to fund permanent collection and ag recycling programs in these areas, resulting in a greater amount of material recovered for recycling, so these materials don’t turn up in waterways like the Great Lakes. 

Why Recycling Matters

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Recycling agricultural plastics diminishes the need for virgin plastic production.  Every kilogram of HDPE plastic recycled saves almost 1.7 kilograms of greenhouse gases through the replacement of virgin resin in new plastic products.

Environmental Conservation: Reduces the need for raw materials minimizes impacts associated with extracting and processing these resources.

Mitigating Plastic Pollution: Recycling prevents plastics from becoming litter, ensuring they don’t clog waterways or degrade into harmful micro-plastics that contaminate our water sources.

Economic Boost: Recycling preserves the environment at the same time as it spurs economic growth by creating jobs and facilitating production of goods from recycled materials.

The Call to Action

Regions where policymakers have prioritized agricultural plastic collection and recycling have seen tremendous success, with organizations like Cleanfarms expanding their reach and impact. With clear and fair policy guidance, the agricultural industry has demonstrated a commitment to managing these resources, achieving high rates of recovery for recycling and contributing materials to the circular economy; a dual win for the environment.  

Policymakers play an indispensable role in shaping the future of the Great Lakes. By enacting fair policies around the collection and recycling of agricultural plastics, they can help curtail plastic pollution and its accompanying challenges.  And we need only to look to Manitoba and Quebec for examples of how policy approaches can truly make a difference.

Conclusion

The importance of the Great Lakes cannot be understated; they are a lifeblood for millions and a testament to the natural beauty our world has to offer. To preserve them, addressing the agricultural plastic conundrum is non-negotiable. Organizations like Cleanfarms, working with farmers across the country, are paving the way to manage plastic waste from farms that helps put food on tables around the world. Now is the time to consider policy that will prioritize the issue of how to manage agricultural plastic waste effectively, and to fortify and support the issues that have been made to date. This is a critical step toward ensuring the protection of the Great Lakes for generations to come.

Images in this article are provided by Cleanfarms and are used here with permission. 

Author: 

Barry Friesen, P.Eng., Executive Director, Cleanfarms

About Cleanfarms:

Cleanfarms (also known as AgriRÉCUP in Quebec) is an agricultural industry stewardship organization that contributes to a healthier environment and a sustainable future by recovering and recycling agricultural and related industry plastics, packaging and products throughout Canada. It is funded by its members in the crop protection, seed, fertilizer, animal health medication, ag plastics industries. Cleanfarms has staff located in Lethbridge, Alberta; Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Etobicoke, Ontario; and St-Bruno, Quebec. For more information, please visit cleanfarms.ca and agrirecup.ca.

CGLR’s business and sustainability network programming is supported by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

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