The plastic problem

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?"

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.

"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.

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.

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