Farmers universally value tools that give them options when it comes to making decisions about crop production. For example, some prairie farmers choose to use grain bags if a harvest has been abundant and extra storage is needed or bin storage is not available close to where the grain is harvested.
In the past decade, travellers on the prairies have become accustomed to seeing the long, cylindrical, white plastic sleeves laid out on farmland in the fall and winter. Made of durable layers of low-density polyethylene, the white exterior and black interior layers preserve the contents until the farmer decides to move the grain.
While plastic grain bags offer a useful option for storing grain, managing the used plastic when the grain bag is no longer needed can be challenging.
Alberta farmers generate nearly 2,000 tonnes of used plastic from grain bags annually. Until the past few years, users of grain bags either took the used unwanted plastic to municipal landfill sites or managed the material behind the farm gate. Farmers generally agree the negative environmental impact of these practices is a deterrent and they welcome better management options for the used plastic.
In 2019, a pilot program, ‘Alberta Ag-Plastic. Recycle It!’, launched in Alberta to collect used grain bags and baler twine for recycling. The pilot gives farmers an environmentally responsible way to manage these used materials. With funds granted by the Government of Alberta and administered by Alberta Beef Producers, the pilot is spearheaded by the multi-stakeholder Agricultural Plastics Recycling Group (APRG), which in turn contracted Cleanfarms to develop and operate the program.
As of December 2021, Cleanfarms is working with 33 collection partners to provide 90 recycling collection sites across Alberta. Through partnerships with the organizations operating these collection sites, Cleanfarms is assessing how grain bag and twine recycling works best for Alberta farmers.
From October 2019 through December 2021, approximately 1,700 tonnes of grain bags and 200 tonnes of baler twine have been collected from Alberta farmers for recycling.
While results indicate increasing farmer participation, the primary challenge for the program is receiving properly prepared materials for recycling. Two issues with any recycling program are keeping the material clean, and densifying the product enough to transport it efficiently to a recycling facility. Cleanfarms asks farmers to ensure they shake out grain bags and twine thoroughly to remove as much spoiled grain and hay/straw as possible, while tightly rolling grain bags with a mechanical roller and bagging loose twine. This will help protect recycling equipment, reduce overall program costs, and ensure the materials are more fit for recycling. Cleanfarms has posted instructions for proper processing on the website at cleanfarms.ca/alberta-ag-plastic-recycle-it-program-details.
Grain bags rolled and prepared for transport to recycling. Source: Cleanfarms
The APRG and supporters are working hard to engage and discuss next steps with key groups and the government so that the pilot can transition into a permanent program. One option is that a permanent program could be designated under an extended producer responsibility (EPR) policy that requires the brand owners and first sellers of grain bags and twine to achieve collection and recycling targets, as in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Over the long term, harmonizing an Alberta program for recycling grain bags with other prairie programs is likely to result in efficiencies and added environmental benefits.
Future harmonization could include applying an environmental handling fee (EHF) that is applied when farmers buy grain bags. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the EHF on grain bags is 25 cents per kilogram. This fee covers the differential between the cost of collecting and processing the material, and the market value of the associated plastic.
Saskatchewan farmers recycled 2,500 tonnes of grain bags in 2020, representing more than 60% of the available grain bags and reflecting a strong farmer commitment to grain bag recycling in that province.
The markets for used grain bags headed for recycling facilities are stable and developing (see graphic on next page for overview of grain bag recycling process). Fortunately, Alberta is well-positioned for domestic markets for recycling grain bags with two Alberta recycling facilities, PolyAg Recycling Ltd., in Bashaw, and Crowfoot Plastics, near Hussar (in partnership with Merlin Plastics). At present, all grain bags collected from the Alberta pilot program are processed in Alberta. Typically, the plastic is used to manufacture new film products such as industrial garbage bags, construction sheeting and composite dimensional lumber. Studies are also currently underway to determine if used grain bag plastic can be incorporated in manufacturing to make new grain bags.
About Cleanfarms and the Alberta Agricultural Plastics Recycling Group (APRG) are publishing a series of information articles for Alberta farmers to develop a shared understanding of the importance of used agricultural plastics resource management. A common theme throughout this monthly series will be an exploration of how ag plastics, once used, can be recycled to reclaim the natural resources and the invested energy, returning them to the economy where they can be remanufactured into new products. This practice is important to Alberta farmers because it contributes to agricultural sustainability that begins and ends on the farm, providing stewardship for future generations, as well as environmental health. Future articles will feature discussions on change management such as first sellers and manufacturers taking responsibility for used materials (extended producer responsibility), and explore practical recycling, including opportunities and challenges, for products such as grain bags, silage and bale wrap and baler twine that have real-time applications for farmers. Cleanfarms is operating a three-year pilot project for grain bag and baler twine recycling in Alberta. The project is led by the multi-stakeholder APRG. Funds were granted by the Government of Alberta and are being administered by Alberta Beef Producers. Find out more:
Upcoming edition: About twine recycling in Alberta