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Northern farmers seeking solutions to recycle plastic bale wrap

Pilot project collects plastic, converts to energy via pyrolysis

What to do with agricultural plastic has been a long-time conundrum for the industry.

Most farmers bury it, burn it, or send it to a landfill. But with concern mounting about its environmental impact, producers are looking for more eco-friendly ways to address it.

A three-year pilot project that has Northern Ontario farmers recycling the plastic is showing promise as a viable solution.

The project, which got underway in 2020, involves the use of an inexpensive device to collect, compact, and bale the plastic, which is then shipped to an end user to repurpose it.

It’s a joint initiative of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA), with funding provided through the federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP).

Steph Vanthof, the OFA’s northeastern Ontario member service representative, said the response from participants has largely been positive.

“The farmers that are involved, they found it very easy to use,” she said. “If they used it as part of their daily routine, they found it not a whole lot of extra work.”

In the OFA-NOFIA pilot, participating farmers received a simple wooden compactor, designed by Picton, Ont., farmer Lynn Leavitt, which compresses the plastic wrap into square bales that are then transported to an end user and converted through pyrolysis to energy.

At least, that was the plan on paper.

When COVID arrived in March 2020, Vanthof said, that arrangement quickly changed and project leaders had to adapt accordingly.

They had planned to have a compactor on site at farm shows and crop tours, but those events were all cancelled, leaving them without a hands-on way to demonstrate its capabilities, Vanthof said.

She had hoped to enroll 50 farmers to the project, but only signed up 35, some of whom built their own compactor.

“It’s always nice to know or talk to someone who’s tried something before you take the plunge,” she said. “It’s not a huge commitment on their behalf, but (farm shows) are still one of the better ways we’ve found in the past to share new technologies and new ways of doing things.”

Compounding the problem, the end user ceased operations over the course of the project, and so the plastic currently has nowhere to go to be recycled.

Farmers are storing the bales on their property and some have expressed frustration at the space they take up, Vanthof said. Bales were originally slated to be picked up every few months.

Producers also want the option of baling all types of plastic used on their farm, but most end users deal with a single type of plastic. In the case of the bale wrap, it’s linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE).

“It would be easier for (farmers) to throw in whatever plastic they have into the bale, but that’s harder to move,” Vanthof said. “That’s an issue we have to figure out.”

Shipping is expensive, since all the end users are located in southern Ontario, and it’s too steep a cost for the producers to shoulder.

Part of the CAP funding was to be used to cover the cost of shipping, but the funding expires with the program this fall. New funding would have to be secured to cover shipping costs if the program were to continue, Vanthof said.

Ideally, farmers want a solution that protects the feed without negatively impacting the environment, she said.

In Europe, a biodegradable net wrap is already on the market, Vanthof said, and, closer to home, research at the university level is ongoing into other eco-friendlier alternatives.

But Vanthof believes a truly viable solution is still far off.

“Why plastic is so beneficial is that it protects your feed for x number of years regardless of the conditions it’s sitting in, and the climate here can differ from the climate in southern Ontario or in Alberta,” Vanthof said.

“So how do you develop a biodegradable wrap that can account for those differences and still effectively protect your feed?”

Despite the challenges, Vanthof still considers the pilot a success.

She’s currently in the process of lining up a new end user that she’s hopeful will be able to take their plastic bales this fall.

And Vanthof was especially pleased that producers in nearly every agricultural region in the North came on board to test the system, many of whom have become true champions of the technology.

“We know that it is very possible, very doable for farmers to have a compactor on farm and make beautiful, well-compacted bales; we know we can store those bales, move those bales,” she said, summing up the project.

“It’s mostly just making sure (we have) consistent end users to know what type of plastic and what parameters around the bales we need, and to make sure we have enough money to make this move on its own and be sustainable on its own.”

A full report on the project is expected this fall.