19 February 2000

A purge on packaging

A pilot scheme to manage farm waste has been under way in Yorkshire. Tom Allen-Stevens finds out what lessons can be learnt.

FEW things can be more infuriating than ordering 60 litres of chemical for a days spraying and receiving 60 one-litre cans. Many growers feel exasperated that in these days of large, fast-filling sprayers, they still have to put up with containers which hold enough active ingredient to treat only one hectare. On top of this, new regulations are expected shortly which are set to restrict the methods of disposal of on-farm waste.

Such frustration has been felt by the Yorkshire based JSR Farming Group. The group produces nearly 6t of empty fertiliser sacks and chemical containers every year. A pilot scheme, mostly funded by the British Agrochemical Association (BAA), has recently been completed on the Yorks and Lincs farms, looking at alternative methods of disposal.

The groups technical director, Philip Huxtable, explains: "We are concerned about the public perception of so much plastic being burned and want a more environmentally-friendly alternative. One day the regulations will change and we dont want to have to struggle to keep up with them."

Simple scheme

The scheme itself was very simple – a few skips to separate waste. Clean waste, including outer packaging, triple-rinsed cans and non-oxidising fertiliser bags, was placed in skips and taken away to heat-recovery plants where the material was burnt to help produce electricity. Contaminated waste, including unrinsed chemical cans, pack tops and foils and fertiliser bags, which had contained ammonium nitrate, were placed in large metal drums and taken to high-temperature incineration plants.

The trial was a great success. The major benefit being time: "Once the waste is in the skip, it is not our problem. Burning properly takes a lot of time – someone has to stand there constantly stoking and topping up the fire, making sure it is at the right temperature. The actual time is difficult to quantify, but he reckons there were a "few days" saved in the waste trial as opposed to burning.

The project has also helped the parties involved identify the real problems behind dealing with farm waste. If burning were to be restricted, these are issues that need to be tackled:

1. Residue often remains in the farm packaging, making it more expensive to dispose of because it is treated as special waste – hazardous. This is down to:

&#8226 the willingness of the farmer to clean packaging, particularly pesticide packs

&#8226 Inadequate can-washer on the sprayer

&#8226 Packaging design

– Pack shape

– Hindrance from foil seal

&#8226 Formulation of chemical

2. Pack size. Waste would be reduced considerably if chemicals were supplied in larger containers.

3. A large proportion of farm waste comes from ammonium nitrate sacks, which are treated as contaminated.

4. Segregation of waste. Sprayer operators in the scheme had to ensure waste was segregated properly, separating cardboard outers from chemical containers, and inner from outer ammonium nitrate bags

5. The waste is very bulky.

The BAAs Ross Dyer has been co-ordinating the scheme and has a clear message for growers: "The most important thing this trial has shown is how important it is that growers empty and clean all farm packaging if they are to minimise waste disposal costs and increase environmental safety."

Important habits

Empty, rinse and drain pesticide packs before disposal, he urges: "In future farmers will be treated the same as other industries with specialist contractors necessary to dispose of contaminated waste – and costing three to four times as much. So it has never been more important that growers get into the habit of triple-rinsing pesticide containers."

Legislation may not be far away: a draft is due later this year with regulations planned to come into force late next year. "The effect is likely to be the same as the groundwater regulations, but far more wide reaching. It is unknown yet whether on-farm incineration will remain an option. Again, it cannot be stressed too much how important it is that farmers burn waste packs properly. A proper incinerator must be used and the packs must go in clean. Do it right now or malpractice will force the Governments hand and the regulations will be more strict," he warns.

Some suggestions have been made as to how to reduce the bulkiness of the waste on farm. Shredding or compressing it before it leaves the farm would result in cheaper disposal. But while there are many areas on farm that need to be tightened up, the chemical and fertiliser industries could also do much to alleviate the problem.

In terms of volume, disposal of fertiliser packaging remains one of the biggest problems yet to be resolved. Ammonium nitrate packaging is treated as hazardous waste because the fertiliser itself is an oxidising agent. While this presents a clear potential hazard with large quantities of fertiliser if not stored correctly, many feel that the packaging should be treated as innocuous waste, since there is unlikely to be more than a few grams of the fertiliser left once the bags have been emptied.

"This issue will be raised with the relevant authorities and there may be an opportunity to recover all fertiliser packaging. The JSR Farming Group trial has proved to be a very useful one, but there is still further evaluation to be done," comments David Heather of the Fertiliser Manufacturers Association, who part funded the trial.

The classification of the different types of waste was largely left to the waste disposal contractor, Cleanaway. All waste containing 1% or more residue of active ingredient was treated as hazardous, including ammonium nitrate inner bags. Governed by the Special Waste Act 1996, the penalties for getting it wrong can be severe.

Naomi Carpenter, environmental adviser with Cleanaway, the firm contracted in the pilot to dispose of the waste, denies they were over-cautious with the handling of any waste: "If we erroneously classified any waste, we could be prosecuted under the Special Waste Act, 1996. To reduce the contaminated waste, separate inner bags from the outer bags, which can then be treated as clean waste.

"As far as the chemical containers are concerned, we found that many that were segregated as clean were in fact contaminated, so many skips had to be sorted. This is a dilemma that warrants attention.

AgrEvos Chris Emmerson, who also chairs the BAAs packaging recovery task force, was instrumental in starting the pilot. He recognises that chemical manufacturers also have a role to play: "Weve already done much to improve pack shape and formulation to ensure cans can be easily rinsed clean. This is something we will continue to improve."

Could pack tops be improved so that a foil was not necessary? "These chemicals are potentially hazardous and the aluminium foil does a good job of preventing permeation or leakage and ensuring that we maintain legal standards. We are looking at ways to avoid using foil, but safety in transit is obviously of paramount importance here."

And what about pack size? "We are trying to standardise and rationalise to cut costs, so it does not make economic sense for us to provide all chemicals in a number of different pack sizes, while it would make sense for us to produce bigger pack sizes. However, there is still much demand for the smaller packs."

So if manufacturers want bigger pack sizes and growers too, the trail inevitably leads to the distributor. Some cynics believe distributors demand small pack sizes so they can quote prices to farmers in terms of, say, £30/pack, rather than £300/pack. Perhaps farmers would demand a keener price for a bulk buy 10 litre pack, compared to 10 one-litre packs, eroding distributors margins.

UAPs Richard Penhale chairs the BAA committee on farm disposal. "Weve seen pack sizes increase in recent years in response to larger farms. If farmers want larger pack sizes, its not a trend were interested in bucking. Were in the business of true added value advice and we certainly cannot demonstrate that by selling a one-litre can rather than a ten litre can."

For the most part the future will be dictated by the progress, or otherwise, of impending agricultural waste regulations. It is beginning to dawn on all sectors of the agricultural supply trade that there are problems that must be resolved if the impact of such legislation is to be minimised.