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Greening up the ag industry, one hay bale at a time

Pilot project looks at recycling plastic hay-baling material

Bison du Nord has always operated with a progressive approach to farming, being purposeful in its approach to animal care, the environment, and the people who work the land.

But through nearly five decades of farming in the Earlton area, owner Pierre Bélanger said there has been one persistent problem that he still doesn’t have a solution for: What to do with the plastic film used for baling hay?

“There really has been no answer; it's a problem that's bedeviled all of us in agriculture,” he said.

“We find it not just aggravating, but embarrassing.”

The white plastic film, which preserves harvested hay so it can be used at a later date, is made of linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), and there’s no real way to recycle it.

Most farmers bury it, burn it, or send it to the landfill, but those are all far from ideal solutions. It’s no surprise then, that used haylage wrap is recognized throughout agriculture as a frustrating and baffling headache.

That’s why Bélanger was one of the first Northern Ontario farmers to sign up for a new pilot project that will see haylage plastic collected and converted into energy.

“When the idea first came up, we said, 'We're in,’” Bélanger chuckled. “They said, ‘Well, it's not yet proven,’ and I said, ‘I don't care – get me one of them.’”

The three-year endeavour is a joint initiative of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA).

Farmers who participate will receive a simple, wooden compactor that can be used on site to collect, compact and bundle used haylage wrap, which will then be picked up and transported to an end user.

As an early adopter, Bison du Nord has been collecting its haylage wrap since before Christmas, and a new shipment of compactors was sent up north just last week to farms in Powassan, the Algoma District, and locations in northwestern Ontario.

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Emily Potter, executive director at NOFIA, said the initial idea came from a 2018 study looking at the amount of plastic waste generated by the ag industry in Northern Ontario, and how they could potentially divert it from area landfills.

With so much recent global focus on the environment and, in particular, plastics, NOFIA and the OFA decided to take a proactive approach to the issue.

“It’s been in the conversation in the industry for quite a number of years now, but we brought it to the forefront as expected regulations from the government come down on having to do something with this agricultural plastic,” Potter said.

Central to the pilot project is the compactor, which was invented by Lynn Leavitt, a Picton, Ont., beef farmer who founded U-Pac Agri Service to sell and market the device.

Although commercial compactors are available, Leavitt’s design is favoured for its portability, ease of use, and affordability.

In recognition of his invention, Leavitt received a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence in 2016.

Potter said the compactor can easily accommodate the wrapping from about 500 round bales of hay, which the farmer compresses as the plastic accumulates until the device is full and the bundle is ready to be tied.

“It’s compatible with tractors, so the design is really simple and easy to use,” Potter said.

“That way, it also keeps the bales a consistent size so when you’re putting them together on a transport load, you’re maximizing transport capacity.”

The compactor costs the farmer about $600, but the cost of transport and delivery to the end user is being covered through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year program jointly funded by the federal, provincial and territorial governments.

Stephanie Vanthof, the OFA’s member service representative for Northern Ontario, said the bundled plastic will be shipped to BBL Energy Inc. in Johnstown, Ont., where the process of pyrolysis will break down the plastic for conversion into energy at a demonstration site.

“They have the technology to do this, and they want to show the technology works, so that way, municipalities or other waste management companies can buy it and put it into their own facilities,” Vanthof said.

“So we’re both showcasing how this would work.”

The goal is to place compactors with large, individual producers that go through 400 bales or more per year, and at regional sites where smaller producers could share the use of a compactor. However, that part of the plan is currently on hold due to the pandemic.

To make the system work, there still has to be a good business case for collecting and shipping the plastic, Vanthof added.

For example, shipping plastic bales from producers in New Liskeard to a recycling centre in, say, North Bay would make more sense than sending them all the way to southern Ontario for processing.

After three years, she hopes to determine what the true costs are for the system, and how it can be maintained over the long term.

But it also could just be an interim measure, since, ideally, the industry would find a better solution – biodegradable plastic, perhaps – to using plastic wrap in the first place.

“We’re hoping, this year at least, we can compact and aggregate those bales to at least help the farm manage,” she said.

“Then, as we start getting them to the end user, really starting to see what this could look like in terms of shifting from what was considered a waste product into some sort of opportunity for the industry itself.”

So far, Bélanger is thrilled with how well his compactor has addressed the plastic waste on his farm.

With a herd of 300 bison, he goes through 1,700 bales of hay each winter, creating about 4,000 pounds of plastic waste.

Where there were once mountains of plastic scattered around the farm, in their place is a neat row of five 800-pound bundles ready for pickup later this spring.

As an extra little incentive, Bélanger will receive about $25 to $30 for every bundle he ships.

He’s even brought some of his neighbours on board, who are now using his compactor to bale their haylage wrap, too.

Compacting the plastic takes a little extra time and effort, and a change in work habits, but Bélanger believes the change is a good one.

“We're very, very happy,” he said. “It's resolved probably the biggest environmental issue we had.”