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The plastic waste issue: Everything British farmers need to know

Documentaries on plastic pollution have increased the public’s awareness of the issue. Alex Black and Ewan Pate take a look at the situation for farm waste.

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The plastic waste issue: Everything British farmers need to know

Businesses are facing the ‘worst year’ for plastic recycling after the closure of export markets hit demand for farm waste.

 

After China closed its recycling markets to European and US waste, plants were now processing the waste which would have been exported, reducing demand for farm products, such as silage wrap.

 

Birch Farm Plastics, Swansea, has been in the recycling business for more than 30 years but has now stopped collection.

 

Gill Walker, senior administrator at the company, said: “The plastic which was going to China is now coming here. It is cleaner and cheaper to recycle the plastic which was going abroad. We cannot just keep on collecting.”

 

Before the market shift, the company collected plastic from farms, sorted and baled it, before sending them off to become plastic lumber.

 

They then brought the material back to turn into products such as garden furniture.

 

They are still manufacturing products but do not know if or when they would start recycling again.

 

“Nobody knows what the future holds. I cannot see any change for this year,” she said.

 

Collection

 

Adam Day, managing director of the Cumbria-based Farmer Network, said they worked with Solway Recycling to arrange collection points and dates for plastic farming waste but this year Solway had struggled to offer dates to them.

 

Mr Day said: “It is not their fault. The ability to export waste plastic into recycling markets has become harder and harder.”


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He added without options to recycle, farmers either had to keep hold of the plastic or send it to landfill.

 

But he highlighted farmers wanted to look after the environment and people were conscious of doing the right thing after documentaries showing the extent of the plastic pollution problem.

 

“We can only hope there is innovation which can find a better way of being able to wrap silage bales or investment in recycling and more ways to turn it back into something useful,” he said.

 

Kenny Ritchie, recycling coordinator at Solway Recycling, said they asked farmers to segregate plastics into different bins on-farm to prevent contamination, keep farms tidy and make transportation easier.

 

Much of the plastic was recycled at the firm’s Dumfries plant, with some going on to other processors.

 

It was then turned into products including calf pens, hen coops and rabbit hutches.

 

“We are expecting this to be the worst year for plastic recycling,” Mr Ritchie said, highlighting the impact of export markets closing their doors.

Issue exacerbated by burning ban

 

STOCKS of waste plastics were building up in Scotland following the farm incineration ban.

 

Peter Allison, of Peter Allison Agri Services, said black plastic crop covers and silage wrap was moving off his premises at Tealing, Dundee, but only if it was washed.

 

He started the business collecting and sorting waste plastic in 2009, developing specialist machinery to allow him to wash crop covers.

 

“It is moving but it is not flying out the door as it used to. Clean agrichemical drums are also finding a market but fertiliser bags are difficult at the moment,” Mr Allison said.

 

Black bale wrap was also finding demand, but once again only if it was clean and had to be kept separate from non-recyclable net wrap.

 

Mr Allison highlighted plastic waste was a worldwide problem Brechin farmer Martin Cessford has been researching ways of recycling his farm plastic waste and the fertiliser blending and distribution businesses he runs.

 

“I have spent the past few months looking at ways of incinerating plastic to produce renewable energy but I have come to the conclusion it would cost too much and produce too little energy,” he said.

 

Cost

 

With a capital cost of about £1.5 million for a plant, it would only have created enough energy to run the machinery and heat a small greenhouse.

 

Mr Cessford’s research had shown Scottish Government grants were not available to help with plastic recycling.

 

Instead, he was baling all the plastic into tightly packed bales and storing them on-farm, hoping a market develops.

NEW ALTERNATIVES NEEDED

 

FINDING a biodegradable alternative to black plastic bale wrap would be a solution, but it seemed it was not yet a realistic prospect.

 

Ewan Johnston, of SAC Consultants, Inverurie, has been looking at the problem with local farmers but said there seems to be nothing on the horizon.

 

“Some companies think they may be able to develop a cellulosebased material which could work, but it is a tall order,” he said.

 

Silage wrap has to be able to withstand acidity, a heavy weight, and exposure to UV light for up to two years and it was not easy to produce a biodegradable product which could cope with contact with soil.

 

One alternative would be to make clamp silage instead of bagged, but this might require significant expense, with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency already raising concerns about farmers resurrecting old clamps.

 

He added bagged silage was more flexible for farmers.

 

“It would be possible in some cases to use fewer layers of wrap, but this would only work reliably where storage conditions were good, for example in old concretefloored clamps and where there was good protection against bird damage,” said Mr Johnston.

 

He added the project had come to a standstill at the moment, but he was still hopeful a product may come to market at some stage.

 

“It will most likely come from the food industry which is already working hard on biodegradable packaging,” he said.

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