In July 2024 a government mandated recycling scheme will come into force covering all farm plastics.
While the agricultural industry has taken some impressive steps over the past decade to recycle silage wrap, pit covers and agrichemical containers, this is in fact the low hanging fruit.
Chemical containers are typically made of high density polyethylene (HDPE) while silage stretch film is made from linear low density polyethylene (LLDPE) and pit covers from low density polyethylene (LDPE).
Given their quality and potential yield from processing both of these products can be rendered into resins and turned into new products.
Because of this, processors are willing to pay for used HDPE, LLDPE and LDPE and this offsets some of the cost of collecting and transporting them for recycling.
More difficult to achieve will be recycling the lower-quality plastic that is used to package many of the retail products that farmers buy, such as seed, feed and minerals.
The low-cost plastics used in this packaging (predominantly woven polypropylene) are difficult to recycle or they have little economic value, so they are more expensive to recycle.
At this point there are no serious alternatives to the cheap, durable plastic packaging that is now widely used.
Therefore the industry faces a dilemma and the various businesses that are part of the supply chain must join forces to address it.
The types of plastics commonly used in retail packaging are:
- Low density polyethylene (LDPE). When it comes to recycling, LDPE is the preferred packaging. But LDPE is more expensive than other types of packaging, so it less common.
- Woven polypropylene (WPP). WPP 20-kg bags and bulk bags are more often used to package products sold to farmers in New Zealand. WPP bags are strong and inexpensive, and they can be recycled. The issue is that recycled WPP resins are lower quality than HDPE and LDPE resins, and processors are unwilling to pay for used WPP packaging. This makes it uneconomical to recycle WPP bags unless someone pays processors to take it off the end users’ hands.
- Biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP). BOPP is a cheap, light, waterproof material that does not tear easily and can be used as a printing surface. These qualities make it is very handy for low-cost packaging. The bag your potato crisps come in is BOPP, for example. Unfortunately, because BOPP packaging contains a mix of plastics, it is difficult to recycle.
So this is the dilemma: high quality plastic, which can be recycled, is too expensive to be used in packaging, but low cost (and effective) plastic packaging is either too expensive or too difficult to recycle.
Alternatives to plastic
What are the alternatives? One suggestion is that heavy duty paper bags could be used to retail many agricultural products.
Paper offers some obvious advantages over plastic. It is made from a renewable resource – trees – while plastic is made from non-renewable petroleum. Paper is also biodegradable, so it does not pose the threat to ocean life that plastic does.
The environmental impact of producing paper is also high, however.
The BBC cites a study commissioned by the Northern Ireland Assembly that found it takes four times more energy to produce a paper bag as it does to produce a plastic bag.
Paper is also heavier, so it requires more energy to transport it, which adds to its carbon footprint. And paper manufacturing produces more toxic chemicals than manufacturing plastic bags.
Paper has a number of other drawbacks. One is that it cannot get wet. To combat this, some paper packaging has a plastic lining, which can make it more difficult to recycle because the paper and plastic need to be separated before any processing can take place
Biodegradable plastic is another proposed alternative to standard plastic packaging.
On the surface this seems to be a logical solution, but several issues make it unlikely.
For one, as plastic degrades it releases microplastic, which enter the environment and potentially the food chain.
Another drawback is that biodegradable plastic cannot be recycled along with standard HDPE or LDPE.
Because it is designed to degrade, if it is mixed with normal plastic during recycling the quality of the resulting resin may be compromised and the products produced from it will not be robust.
Needless to say, it would be very difficult for end users and recyclers to distinguish normal plastic from biodegradable plastic. The chance of contamination would be high.
All of this means that, if the looming product stewardship scheme for agriculture covers plastic packaging, the industry will have some difficult questions to answer.
Product stewardship means that everyone in the supply chain shares responsibility for what happens to the product at the end of its life.
Ultimately, should the industry opt for WPP packaging to sell its products, then importers, retailers and end users will have to help offset the cost of collecting, bundling, and delivering used packaging to processors so that it can be turned into new products.
Because it is less desirable product for recycling, there is a risk that the cost to process it will continue to escalate.
Many companies are looking for a single answer to solve the packaging issue but in a market that is constantly evolving, this is difficult to achieve.
Simplifying the industry’s plastic packaging to a couple of easy-to-recycle streams would certainly help, however the reality is that different packaged goods have different requirements when it comes to avoiding excess moisture, sweating, heat, breathability and robustness for storage and handling.
The over-riding factor in all of this is price. There is a concern that a competitor will have an advantage if a change is made to more sustainable packaging that costs more which increase the overall price of the product being sold.
There is no shortage of good intentions from merchants and manufacturers but doing about it something is proving to be another story, mainly due to this fear of being uncompetitive in the market.