7 November 1998

RETURNABLES COMING YOUR WAY AGAIN…

Put the pressure on. Ask your distributor to supply agchems in returnable containers – for faster, cheaper and safer spraying. Gilly Johnson reports.

WHY isnt the industry falling over itself to switch to returnable pesticide containers?

Its a puzzle, given the benefits. The technology is ready and waiting; growers are keen, particularly if costs are minimal; new legislation is pending to encourage the practice; and manufacturers are now prepared to supply a wide range of products in returnables.

Part of the answer lies with the agrochemical distributor network, which is the first customer in the pesticide supply chain. Although there are some exceptions, distributors have shown lukewarm support for returnable containers.

Understandably so – they are wary of extra hassle involved with farm collection systems, and dont want the expense of carrying extra pack lines.

In public, distributors are supportive of the theory of returnable systems, as being more environmentally friendly, safer because of closed transfer technology, and potentially helpful for their customers.

But privately, they question the commitment of the agrochemical manufacturers. As one distributor, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Crops: "The manufacturers themselves are in a real muddle over returnables. It seems they are all going down different routes. At the end of the day, its not their top priority. So why should we become involved in what is essentially a machinery issue?"

For distributors, the easiest option is if growers burn empty pesticide containers on farm. Done correctly, this is also the most effective and, in terms of the energy balance, most efficient pack disposal method, says the British Agrochemicals Association (BAA). A strong case, therefore, for the status quo.

But change is in the air. Under the new packaging waste recycling legislation in Europe, manufacturers and distributors will soon be under obligation to recycle a proportion of their packaging waste, or pay a financial penalty. Although the initial cost to businesses may not be as great as was first anticipated, it could become enough to make distributors consider returnables as an alternative, if the financial penalties increase.

Over the past 12 months, two agrochemical manufacturers – Cyanamid and AgrEvo – have made an effort to overcome industry inertia by pump priming. This has involved giving growers the equipment to attach to their sprayers, which would enable them to access certain high volume product lines supplied in returnable containers.

No cost

Some commitment to buy Cyanamids pendimethalin products was required, but the cost of the hardware – as fitted, approaching £1,000 – was free to growers, underwritten by the manufacturers. These systems are known as the Ecomatic (from Cyanamid), or the Echo System (AgrEvo, supplier of the Arelon 500 IPU, which is mixed with the pendimethalin), and were built around the Wisdom Agricultural closed transfer system, using plastic keg returnable containers with Micro Matic valves.

The transfer system has now been changed to a different type – the Measurematic. This is a refinement of the original closed transfer system, but with easier operation. The pump unit is powered independently by a 12v battery, instead of through the sprayer.

Key to the success of this initiative is the Micro Matic valve, which is gaining acceptance as a standard within Europe. That should rule out growers having to kit out the sprayer with a number of different coupling gadgets to access different returnable packs – which is the unfortunate situation in the US.

Cyanamid is now reviewing whether to continue with promotion of the handling and extraction system in 1999. The exercise has been an expensive one; about 1,000 units will have been sent out by the end of this year. But growers taking part in the scheme can rest assured that their transfer equipment will remain just as useful as ever, because the Micro Matic valve will remain the common factor for any new returnable packs.

Cyanamid is to sell Stomp (pendimethalin) and proprietary IPU mixtures such as Trump and Encore in returnables this autumn, with the pea and potato herbicide Bullet and growth regulator Meteor to be sold in returnables in spring 1999. Monsanto and Zeneca are trialling returnable containers fitted with the Micro Matic valve.

The other player, Novartis (formerly Ciba), has developed the LinkPak, arguably the simplest and cheapest returnable system. This involves turning the container upside down, and inserting it into a device mounted on the induction hopper. Twisting opens the connection, and activates the delivery of the pesticide, by gravity, into the sprayer.

Control of the emptying process is possible by twisting the container to slow fluid flow. A 10-litre container can be emptied in 15sec.

There are disadvantages to the LinkPak; because the container has to be lifted manually, the comfortable limit for size is the 10-litre pack, which would limit its usefulness for operations such as autumn herbicide spraying, where high volumes and fast throughput may be required. And some thick formulations have not been suited to the LinkPak because of difficulties gauging how much is delivered.

However, for highly active, low dose products, the LinkPak is simple, quick and effective, and there is a 5-litre version too. Its cheap – only £100 which includes fitting. Granular products can now be put through the LinkPak system thanks to a new refinement. Watch out for Novartis granular products in returnable LinkPaks next year.

"Weve had spectacular successes with LinkPaks in seed treatments, thanks to demand from the seed treatment companies who buy direct from us," says Tom Robinson of Novartis. "We are certainly carrying on with it, in field crops as well. We now have a wide range of products registered in LinkPaks, and we dont charge any more for them. Everyone who tries a LinkPak wants to continue, but we cant supply it directly. You must order your non-seed treatment products in LinkPaks through your distributor."

For growers, its the speed of emptying thats a major attraction. Thats the advantage of a new simple, low cost sprayer-mounted system from Wisdom, which looks just like a hand-held petrol pump dispenser. "Its twice the speed of delivery, for half the cost of previous systems," says Wisdoms Richard Garnett. The FasTran can deliver 40 litres in 60sec from returnable containers, with enclosed transfer.

Electronics

Theres an electronic read-out, powered by batteries, which shows down to 0.01/litre how much product has been put into the tank. Transfer by vacuum suction is powered either by the sprayers own pump, by a refinement to the venturi, or by fitting another pump, depending on the model. Again, it has the Micro Matic valve coupling, so could be used with any of the Cyanamid returnables, or any new packs which come on stream with Micro Matic valves.

The electronics allow for calibration of different types of chemical and different day temperatures, so that accuracy is maintained. Fitting is fast and simple, says Mr Garnett, and total cost including fitting is under £500 (01432 851212).

The company is also offering a hand-held manual dispenser, again fitting the Micro Matic coupling. The Handi-Tran1 is priced at £36, and measures down to 50ml. Rotopak is the companys robust returnable plastic container, fitted with the Micro Matic valve.

Will growers be willing to pay the price of a transfer system to access returnables? "Look at the time savings possible," says Mr Garnett. "If the sprayer can make another trip through the field in a day, thanks to rapid transfer of product from returnables, then its easily worthwhile on that alone."

Hed like to see more growers demanding returnables from their distributors. "Thats the way to push the market forward. Growers should be able to buy what ever products they want, in returnable containers, for no extra cost."

Distributors and manufacturers now concede that returnable containers are on the way – sooner or later. Might a combination of the two systems now on offer – the LinkPak and those based on the Micro Matic valve – satisfy all requirements?

AS A recent winner of the Farm Spray Operator of the Year competition, Jon Cole knows how to make the most of his sprayer. Speed, efficiency and safety are the priority. So hes keen to use the new FasTran system to access products from returnable containers.

In the past, the process of putting chemical in the sprayer, and then rinsing containers, has been a bottleneck. "Turnaround time is most important, so this looks promising – as long as it proves accurate enough. And it will save the hassle of disposing of packs."

It also does away with having to hump the 30kg containers around, because the containers can be emptied from the pallet. The sprayer is put to full use at E C Drummond and Son, with 971ha (2,400 acres) near Ross on Wye, Herefordshire.

Local distributor John Ford of Technicrop welcomes developments with returnables. "We spend an increasing amount on pack disposal systems for our customers – costs have gone up threefold in the past three years. This would be a good alternative. Well be trying the FasTran this autumn."