Ag industry must join forces to recycle small woven poly bags

New Zealand agriculture’s effort to recycle its waste plastic is a good news story that should be more widely known.

That effort is now at a crossroads, however. If the industry does not take the initiative to lift recycling to the next level, then government will impose a scheme that will cost suppliers and ultimately farmers more in the long run.

First the good news. In the past 15 years Plasback has collected more than 21,000 tonnes of silage wrap and other used plastic from farms up and down the country.

The amount collected has grown steadily year on year, and in 2021 it jumped up sharply, assisted by Fonterra’s Co-operative Difference initiative.
Under Co-operative Difference, up to 10 cents of Fonterra shareholders’ milk payment comes from their efforts to farm sustainably. One step that suppliers can take to achieve this payment is to recycle their waste plastic.

This has prompted many more dairy farmers to take up Plasback’s offer to pick up their used plastic directly from their properties.
To get this service from Plasback, farmers pay a small fee that covers the costs of the cartage contractor who collects the plastic from the farm.
But good product stewardship is an industry-wide responsibility. This means that the companies that supply the plastic in the first place should also help provide a mechanism for their waste to be recycled and help cover the cost of doing so.

Fortunately, today most silage film suppliers in New Zealand now recognise their responsibility and actively support the Plasback scheme.
Now for the not so good news. Farmers not only want Plasback to collect their silage wrap and twine, they also want us to collect the small woven plastic bags that rural supply merchants use to package and sell seed, feed, and mineral supplements.

The problem is that these 20-kg bags are made of woven polypropylene.

Unlike silage wrap and other high-density polyethylene (LLDPE) plastics, these small woven polypropylene bags have no economic value. This means, if you want to recycle them, you must pay a processor a ‘gate fee’ to take it off your hands or deliver it to the recycler at ‘no cost’.

While Plasback can cover the cost of processing, baling, and shipping used silage wrap by selling it to recyclers, there is no ability to do so with small woven polypropylene bags.

If we were to collect these small bags from farms, all we could do is store them, dump them, or lose money by giving them to a recycler.
So, the industry faces a dilemma – farmers are willing to pay a fee to recycle their seed, feed and mineral bags and Plasback is willing to collect them but cannot afford to do so.

This is not a trivial issue. Millions of these bags come into New Zealand from China every year and they are now either burned or buried on farm or they end up in landfills.

Missing from this picture are the merchant chains who sell their products in small polypropylene bags. They are the ones who import the bags, attach their logos to them, and send them out to farms.

So far, they have avoided their responsibility and have not shared any of the cost of recovery.

This is not good product stewardship, and it flies in the face of the government’s decision to make farm plastics a priority product under the Waste Minimisation Act. By 2024 the industry is expected to have a recycling programme in place for all agricultural waste plastic.

What can be done? Plasback says that if rural merchants contributed to the cost of collecting the 20-kg small woven polypropylene bags that they sell, it would cover the costs of delivering them to a recycler.

The industry now needs the major merchant chains and bag manufacturers/importers to step up and take the lead on this. Otherwise, the government is likely to impose a programme.

In that case, I am sure the rules will be confronting for the manufacturers and distributors who have chosen to sit back and wait instead of building a platform for change.

An argument we often hear is if some retailers charged a small recycling fee for plastic bags, it would put them at a disadvantage relative to their competitors in terms of price.

We believe that today most people are willing to pay a bit more to protect the environment. In fact, those companies who are seen to be doing the right thing will likely attract more customers.

There is a lot of talk in our industry about sustainability. Much of this is green washing, however, and the words are not backed by actions.
It is one thing to have ‘sustainability teams’ and ‘thought leadership’, but it is another to offer customers practical ways to deal with waste and back this up financially.

The industry must be honest about the real cost of recycling small woven polypropylene bags and then it has to join forces and share the cost of doing so.

By Neal Shaw, Plasback commercial manager