Britain’s farming industry has a resource, potentially worth millions of pounds, piling up around silage stores and in the back of sheds.
The trouble is, the used plastics that this potential windfall consists of are mostly wet and dirty and often mixed up with other waste.
More than that, they are scattered across every one of the industry’s 200,000 farm and horticultural holdings.
So the material is effectively worthless as far as farmers are concerned.
For although there is a market for used plastics that can be recycled, once the costs of gathering, sorting, transporting and processing it have been paid for there is little left for those that produce it.
In fact from February 2006 (when the new agricultural waste regs are due to arrive) the disposal of this waste plastic will be a cost for all farmers.
They will no longer be allowed to burn or bury waste plastic (already discouraged under SFP compliance rules) and it won’t be welcome in landfill sites.
But it is not all bad news – if the price of oil continues to climb, that will force up the cost of virgin polymers and make plastic that is suitable for recycling more valuable.
In fact rising demand for some plastics is making it worthwhile shipping it to places like China and India, where it can be processed cheaply.
In Britain, processing capacity for soiled farm plastics is already outstripped by the amount of material made available through collection schemes.
But that balance of supply and demand could change as new plants and processes come on stream.
How big is the problem?
Each year 135,000t of waste plastic is produced on UK farms.
This mainly consists of silage wrap, silage clamp plastic, fertiliser and seed bags and pesticide containers
So what should farmers do?
Though the new rules are still a couple of months away, it makes sense to get to grips with your waste plastic well before that.
A few tips:
Keep different plastic types apart, keep it as clean as possible, and keep it as dry as possible. Additional requirements apply when it comes to containers that have held pesticides and other chemicals. Most collection or depository schemes charge by weight, so minimising the amount of water and soil mixed in will cut collection costs. The weight of contaminants – mainly water – could be as much as three times the weight of the plastic. So store material under cover or rolled into a tight bundle (if stored outside) to keep water from adding to the weight.
How will the new collection schemes work?
There are two basic types.
One involves farmers taking their waste plastic to a local drop-off centre, where it is sorted and baled into packages for more efficient onward transport.
The other is where it is collected from individual farms by a licensed operator.
Costs are higher here, as the collector must run a vehicle and incurs higher manpower costs.
Who is setting up these new collection schemes?
Though DEFRA has just spent 1m on a study into the feasibility of establishing a nationwide collection and recovery scheme, it won’t happen for a while.
Meanwhile, existing local collection schemes are expanding and new ones – both local and nationwide – are springing up.
A directory of collection and depository services can be found on www.wasterecycling.org.uk