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Assessing the Efficacy: Green Tractor comments on WRAP's review, on behalf of Defra, of plastics in agriculture

Not since EU legislation on correct disposal of agri-plastic waste came into force in 2004, has there been so much discussion around farm plastics. With reports and investigations coming from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the FAO previously, a review by WRAP on behalf of Defra has recently been published further looking at the current situation UK agri-plastics and waste management finds itself in. A sceptic may argue that such a deluge in reports and reviews is almost counter-intuitive, however, it seems indicative of the scale of the problem that agricultural plastic waste management finds itself in.

Now, of course, all of these reports are of high interest to Green Tractor and we were kindly invited to contribute to both the EIA and WRAP reports respectively. Taking part in the respective insights into farm plastics and exploring potential solutions that could help improve the rates of recycling, exhibits the key role we find ourselves in to exact real change. As part of our ambition to increase the rates of recycling in agriculture, working with NGOs to showcase an industry insight into potential solutions will enable ideas with an industry nuance to have a platform amongst more blue-sky ideas that could, together, have long-term impacts on the industry.

The report itself while, overall, was exploring the current state of disposal of agricultural plastics, the report was predominantly focused on silage wrap. As we know from the ambassadors and collectors we work with as a scheme, there are many more waste streams in agriculture. Indeed, the work we are currently doing with FPS Flexibles and our fertilizer corporate ambassadors to develop a closed loop for the disposal of fertilizer bags is indicative of that. Silage was the focus due to its position as the largest waste stream and typically being the stream, they found to be least recycled. Moreover, focusing on one stream, allows greater investigation and subsequent analysis that can be used to showcase the problem as a whole agri-plastic waste management finds itself in. As stated, GTS as a collective, collects and recycles all farm plastics, including silage wrap, but we ourselves have found some are recycled more than others. Across our easterly collection sites, they, for example, have found great success with the disposal of spray containers.

In short, the report outlines that approximately only 20-30% of farm plastic placed on the market is recycled. They argued that awareness of recycling schemes, high contamination, gate fees, lack of economic support from government, greater commercial incentives for the end product, and proper enforcement are the key barriers to increasing the recycling rate. Green Tractor agrees. However, in exploring each recommendation, we collectively can review realistic tools that can be implemented to enable an increased rate of recycling of agri-plastic.

The first point on awareness is exactly what Green Tractor is doing with our corporate ambassador scheme. Through working with fantastic organisations like Agrii, FPS, Origin, and Yara (to name a few!), to help spread our message on the education of best practices of recycling, whether that’s where, how, or why; our work with Green Tractor ambassadors will ensure fantastic coverage and subsequent awareness for farmers in recycling their farm plastic. Moreover, education on best practice will lead to reduced rates of contamination. This is through an understanding of the importance of the separation of waste streams and the removal of contaminants. Of course, regarding the latter, we’re farmers ourselves, and so we understand silage wrap is never going to be wholly clean! But, through best practice, we can ensure that greater rates of recycling can be achieved.

Economic support from the government is an interesting proposition. In an ideal world, the government would possess the ability to subsidise proper waste management for farmers to enable the industry to conduct best practice with recycling. However, as realists, this is likely not going to happen anytime soon. In exploring other ways, the government could develop financial incentives for proper agricultural plastic waste disposal, Green Tractor believes there are two key schools of thought. The first, as well detailed by WRAP in their review, is exploring an Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme. This as an entity could be a fantastic solution, but it must be implemented correctly. The second, which would also help with increased gate fees, would be exploring a grant or some other financial incentive to foster investment in a greater number of agri-plastic recycling plants, in particular for silage wrap. Currently, silage wrap after collection and processing by our Green Tractor collectors is then handled by five respective plastic recycling companies. These businesses are conducting a fantastic service, but as an industry, we require a greater number of recycling points for silage wrap. This will help to reduce the gate fee as it becomes less of a closed shop and in turn, the price to collect and process the silage wrap is reduced and therefore, the price for recycling for the farmer is reduced.

While increasing the number of recycling sites and improving awareness of agri-plastic recycling is paramount to increasing recycling rates, the impact will only be felt by farmers and the industry as a whole if the number of end markets, particularly silage wrap, can be increased. As the report focused on silage wrap, we shall do the same. Silage wrap, when recycled, due to contamination and the colour of the product, produces a low-grade pellet. This pellet, currently, has two end markets for which the pellet can be used to manufacture. These are refuse sacks and damp-proof membranes. The former has a rather continuous level of supply and demand, but regarding damp-proof membranes, the market is wholly dependent on the construction industry. Not deliberating over the current state of the UK economy for too long, but as we know, demand for housing and other construction is currently at a low point and does not look like it will change anytime soon. With that, it means there is little demand for the membranes, which means recycling sites are not actively sourcing silage wrap and therefore, the price to recycle it will not change. This unfortunately means that even with increased awareness that our scheme is achieving, regarding silage wrap, other plastics much less so we hasten to add, will be difficult to increase the rate of recycling while there is little demand for the end product.

So how do we counter this?

At the start of this piece, the comment was raised around the deluge of reviews into recycling agricultural plastics. Raising these points, much like our own awareness campaigns, is paramount to raising the rates of recycling, but now it is the time for action. With the end market situation, Green Tractor believes the problem could be rectified somewhat through the implementation of clear and low tinted silage wrap and films rather than using black or green. Green and black wrap, as stated, can be recycled and remade to manufacture damp-proof membranes and refuse sacks. Using clear bale wrap would create greater end markets as used clear plastic can be recycled and reprocessed into greater commodities than black or green plastic. Enabling greater product creation will increase demand for used silage wrap, which will reduce the gate fees and will, in turn, reduce the recycling fee for farmers. Of course, current manufacturers of silage wrap might argue there is a systemic reason why silage wrap must be manufactured using green or black plastic. However, if it takes a small bit of administration and the silage, as an end product, is not reduced dramatically by using clear plastic, then it seems to us, at Green Tractor, to be an easy decision to make. Green Tractor collectors benefit from reduced gate fees, the recyclers have greater demand for a pellet made from clear or tinted silage wrap and most importantly, the farmer benefits from a reduction in cost to recycle.

Coveris Clear Silage Wrap offering the same level of protection as coloured wrap

While moving towards clear silage wrap will create a greater market and raise demand, there are two rather damning elephants in the room. The cost of energy and the low price of the polymer is a stranglehold on recycling sites across the UK. While costs stay high and the value for all polymers, not just the pellet produced from silage wrap, stays relatively low, it culminates in an unsustainable market. Unless regulations are brought in to help the recycling industry with, especially, the high energy costs, then a lot of the brilliant ideas we have to enable greater agricultural recycling will unfortunately come to less fruition.

As we are on the subject of government interventionism in the recycling industry, recycling silage wrap, even with the suggested solutions to increase rates of recycling, is rather curtailed by commercial interests. As with the situation regarding high energy costs and low prices for recycled polymers, increasing the rate of silage wrap recycling, in particular, will likely require some sort of government intervention. Silage wrap even without the difficulty to process and the minimal end market for the pellet, is a plastic product that is less valuable than other films, particularly packaging. Packaging films carry a PRN which I am not going to try and explain in this review - it is rather complex. (If you wish to learn more about PRNs, check out this link - Packaging Recovery Notes: The Complete Guide | Clarity). In short, the PRN means packaging carries a greater value than silage wrap. Silage wrap is intrinsic to the development of silage and so is part of the product rather than packaging the product. Moreover, used silage wrap is a heavily contaminated waste product so if it was PRNable, it could be exposed to fraud. Anyhow, to increase the rate of recycling of silage, it needs to be made a more lucrative enterprise which likely will have to come from government intervention. The form this takes would likely be an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme as noted in the Defra review. 

The final recommendation in the report involves greater enforcement of farmers for correct waste management. Now this sounds like an advocation for greater policing of an industry already saddled with much microscopic lens regarding their functionality. As Green Tractor, we interpret this as standard regulators ensuring proper observations of good waste management practices. A farmer, by law, has to correctly dispose of their farm plastic. Ideally, this would be recycling (with Green Tractor collectors!), but according to the letter of the law, it means the farmer needs to ensure all farm plastic they use is disposed of correctly. As a reasonable solution, it would involve farming assurance schemes ensuring that each farm that is held accountable to these audits is disposing of all their farm plastic using the proper waste management channels. Doing this will ensure greater tonnages of used farm plastic are dealt with responsibly and ideally recycled.

In drawing some final conclusions, the report highlights some current areas of success in farm plastic waste management, Green Tractor (of course), some areas for improvement, and some potential solutions. Overall, the report is another fantastic review of the current situation of disposal of agricultural farm plastics. As this piece briefly touches on, there is much to do and through the work of ourselves and other organisations we can ensure we increase the rate of farm plastic recycling in the UK.

If you want to read the WRAP review yourself, then please find it here: Science Search (defra.gov.uk)

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