7 May 1999

BAGS OF SUPPORT FOR WASTE PLASTICS PLAN

IT is marvellous stuff when it is doing the job for which it is designed, but farm plastic becomes nothing but a nuisance when its role of enclosing forage in clamps or bales is complete.

The material should not be burned on-farm, burial is an equally environmentally unfriendly means of disposal and the cost of sending it to a landfill site is becoming prohibitive, if it is accepted at all.

Short of hiding it a bit at a time in the bottom of the household waste bin, it is difficult to get rid of the stuff.

Ideally, in this increasingly "green" world, it would be rolled up, collected and sent for re-processing. Farmers are willing – keen, even – to do the former and Britain is well-equipped to do the latter. The difficulty comes in collecting and transporting the bulky material at an acceptable cost.

The UKs Farm Film Producers Group scheme, which ran for three years or so, proved that it can be done as long as there is a will among all those who sell and use agricultural plastics. That voluntary scheme added an "environmental protection contribution" to the price of every tonne of stretch film, silage bags and clamp sheet sold, to pay for administration, collection and haulage costs.

It was doing well, being well received by many farmers, until the rug was decisively pulled from beneath it by two overseas film producers who refused to play ball and, consequently, were able to undercut the "retail" price of film sold by those participating in the scheme.

"It was a terrible shame because we had the infrastructure in place – in terms of organisation and collection contractors – to make the scheme work well," says Marilyn Birch, a south Wales farmer and chairman of the Farm Film Collectors Group.

Although the collection business she and her husband built up is dormant, like those of another dozen or so contractors, Mrs Birch has not given up on the prospect of such a scheme being revived.

"More than 3000 farmers have registered with us, prepared to co-operate with a new scheme for Wales if we can get it started," she says. "I believe we could involve as many as 5000 farms in the first year."

To cover set-up investment and running costs for the first three years, and to be able to levy farm charges competitive with the cost of other means of disposal (principally landfill), grant aid has been sought from both the European Union and the Welsh Office.

"We estimate costs of £920,000 over three years and propose that half of this would be recovered from farmers using the scheme, half from grant aid," says Mrs Birch.

EU funding has already been won but is dependent on the government, via the Welsh Office, matching this £230,000 contribution. Though impatient to get on, Mrs Birch accepts that consideration of the proposals is bound to take time.

"It is encouraging to know we have access to EU money but frustrating to wait for a decision from our own government," she says. "Still, the Welsh Office has called for a meeting of interested parties, so at least we know it is being actively considered."

Apart from concerns about the on-going viability of the scheme beyond the three-year period for which funding is being sought, the Welsh Office is understood to be aware that the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) is in the process of weighing up responses to its consultation paper on farm plastics disposal.

At present, notes Jim Pugh, chief executive of the Packaging & Industrial Films Association (PIFA), there are no legal obligations for either producers or users of farm plastics in Britain to manage waste disposal.

"In its consultation, the DETR asked whether the "duty of care" that applies to many other waste materials should be extended to farm plastics. And, if so, whether a voluntary or statutory collection scheme would be favoured," he says.

To ensure a considered "industry" response, PIFA was instrumental in forming the Farm Plastics Group, which, for the first time, says Mr Pugh, brought together all interests, from plastics raw material suppliers to end users, represented by the NFU.

"All parties agree that a scheme formulated and operated by those involved in the agricultural industry would be better than having a government-devised programme imposed," says Mr Pugh. "But it is also recognised that no collection scheme will work unless it has legal underpinning to control the free-riders."

That has been fundamental to the introduction of collection schemes in Ireland by the Irish Farm Film Producers Group and in Holland by Folined Foundation.

Moves to set up the Irish scheme won government backing from the outset, with legislation obliging all suppliers to participate but leaving the industry free to devise and operate a workable and easily administered system.

"Farmers were sceptical about it at first but now appreciate the value of the scheme," says Liam Kiernan of IFFPG.

In 1998, its first full year of operation, 2000t of waste farm plastics was collected. The target for 1999 is 3000t.

That is still a small proportion of the estimated 12,000t annual sales of plastic film in Ireland. But farmer participation is expected to grow, especially now that 40,000 farms are covered by Irelands rural environment protection programme. That makes disposal of waste plastic via the IFFPG scheme an obligation rather than an option.

Funding is derived from a levy on sales of plastic, which, at £2.20 on a 1500m roll of 750mm stretch film, works out at about 7p a bale. That pays for administration and the contractors employed as collection agents.

In Holland, farmers not only pay a small levy – about 3p/kg – on the plastic products they buy, but are also charged for collection when it becomes waste.

"The small levy more or less pays for scheme administration, while the charge covers the collection and shipment costs," says Wouter van Wijk of Folined Foundation.

Competition laws

Because of EU and national commercial competition laws, film producers or importers are not obliged to participate in the scheme. But if they choose to opt out, they are required by law to have their own means of collecting the product they sell when it becomes waste. That, alone, encourages suppliers to use the national scheme.

With Dutch farmers using only a small quantity of stretch film, the scheme focuses on fertiliser bags and silage sheets. Farmers must register and are invoiced according to the weight of plastic removed. Payment is by direct debit to minimise administration.

"There has been some reaction against the charge because the cost of waste plastic disposal was previously paid for by local and district authorities and farmer organisations," says Mr van Wijk. "But while that approach cost, on average, £45 a farmer, individually they pay perhaps £20, because it is more efficient to have a co-ordinated scheme."

Tax credit

Farmers in north-west England hope to recoup some of the cost of collection and haulage through the Landfill Tax Credit scheme, which is designed to encourage alternatives to using landfill sites for waste disposal.

"We have met the criteria for this credit by forming a non-profit making organisation among local farmers," says Ruth Walters, who farms with husband Carl at Low Hullock Howe, Bampton near Penrith.

Fertiliser, feed and big bag inners, along with stretch film, silage bags and clamp sheets, are stockpiled on farms with good road access. The materials are hauled away by an established collector who also operates a round in south-west Scotland, within easy reach of the Dumfries Plastics Recycling plant.

Bampton Farm Plastics Recycling Association plans six collections a year (costing £300 a load), using a specially modified "compactor" silage trailer, and North West Water, which has a number of tenanted farms in the area, is helping set-up similar schemes in the locality. &#42

Plastic clamp sheets, big bale bags and stretch film make a valuable contribution to forage conservation, but when their work is done, they represent a disposal problem that is an increasing headache for farmers. Peter Hill reports on attempts to re-establish an economically and environmentally-acceptable means of collection and disposal

The Irish scheme

Farm Relief Services, the national co-operative organisation, is one of two organisations employed as collectors by the Irish Farm Film Producers Group.

"Silage film is collected and taken by lorry to several FRS stockpile sites where it is baled ready for haulage to the recycling plant in Dumfries," explains FRS director Peter Burn.

The "baler", an adapted truck-mounted car crusher, produces half-tonne plastic blocks that fit neatly on to a trailer bed to make up loads weighing 20t to 22t a time.

"It is important not to have any manual handling involved, both for efficiency and hygiene," adds Mr Burn. "But we also have to convince farmers to stockpile their waste properly to minimise contamination."

Users of the scheme are asked to remove all twine and any other debris, then store the plastic in a container of some sort.

"Four or half-a-dozen pallets nailed together on their sides to form a box is ideal," says Mr Burn. "It keeps the plastic clean and tidy, and stops it blowing about the farm yard. Put an old barrel alongside to hold the twine and the job is easily done."

Processing plant

Dumfries Plastics Recycling is part of the giant British Polythene Industries concern and now has separate preparation and processing lines for conventional farm polythenes, such as those used for clamp sheets and bale bags, and the more specialist stretch film.

"Stretch film is more difficult to process for recycling, partly because of its physical and chemical properties but also because it tends to arrive with a high level of contamination which must first be removed," says Andrew Green, operations director of BPIs recycled products division.

The economics of recycling plastics is also challenging, especially when, as now, the cost of virgin raw material is at a low level. That clearly affects the economic viability and competitiveness of products made from recycled material, be it fence posts, street furniture or slatted flooring for livestock, or the dustbin liners and similar low-grade products which silage bags and clamp sheets are turned into.

DPR pays nothing for these waste materials. But nor does it levy a gate charge for taking them in, unlike some Continental recycling plants, it seems.