13 August 1999

What to do

with all

the plastic?

The winner of last autumns

FWAG/Kemira/FW farm

waste solutions competition

was Cheshire dairy farmer

Ed Hardy. He told

David Cousins about his ideas

on farm plastic recycling

WHAT would farmers do without plastic bags of one sort or another? Fertiliser arrives in them, as does feed and seed. Round bales are invariably wrapped in plastic or shoved inside a bag. But getting rid of this plastic is not so easy. Youre not really supposed to burn it or bury it and what recycling schemes there are give only patchy coverage of the country.

Its a dilemma that had been troubling Ed Hardy for some time. He works on the family farm near Audlem, Cheshire, where the main enterprise is a 160-head dairy herd, and he considers his consumption of plastic bags far from untypical.

"We probably use about 1400 25kg bags of feed and seed each year, much of that calf-rearing compound," he says. "We also have 170 half-tonne bags of fertiliser each year. We were part of the Farm Film Producers Group which came two or three times to take away plastic but they have gone out of business."

The loss of the FFPG has dealt something of a body blow to hopes that a national plastic-recycling scheme could be firmly established across the country. It had 3000 farmers registered, was voluntarily funded by plastic manufacturers and was working well. However, it collapsed when two overseas plastic film producers pulled out and started to undercut the prices of those taking part. The organisers are currently trying to get EU and UK government funding to start it up again.

Mr Hardy is pushing for a more radical solution, and suggests that there are ways of improving the recycling of both small and large plastic bags.

Small plastic bags

up to 50kg

There is already some recycling of these. A proportion go to be turned into posts and rails, while undamaged bags are often picked up by local builders for transporting sand and rubble. Mr Hardy also lines the sides of his silage clamps with small bags or even the liners from half-tonne ones. These are nailed to the wooden sleepers and have proved very durable.

He has also designed a simple way of storing them more neatly. His bag-stacker simply provides a frame on which the bags can be stacked relatively tidily and out of the way of mud or puddles. Once full, a length of string can then simply be passed round the pile, allowing them to be kept neatly and cleanly. The device costs about £25 to make and, if every farm used something similar, would greatly improve the cleanliness of small bags destined for any recycling scheme.

Half-tonne bags

Rather than discarding the bag once its used, why not make it so that the bag itself can be re-used, he suggests. This would involve using a length of woven adhesive tape along the underside of the bag, which would both show the farmer where to cut and prevent fraying of the fibres.

The bag would then go back to a specialist firm to be re-stitched and then refilled, he suggests. Instead of paying £5 for a new bag, the fertiliser manufacturer would pay £4 to the firm repairing the bags for a recycled bag and £1 to the wholesaler who would be responsible for collecting the bags from farms and returning them to the repairer. The farmer would be responsible for slitting the bags accurately, cleaning them and storing them neatly.

The judges of the competition – Roger Chesher from Kemira, Richard Knight, national technical manager at FWAG and David Cousins from FW – were impressed by the amount of thought Mr Hardy had obviously put into the whole subject of plastic recycling. "Finding environmentally-acceptable methods of disposing of the considerable amounts of waste produced on every farm is far from easy," said Richard Knight. "Eds winning ideas are brillantly simple. If suppliers and government worked together to channel their imagination and commitment, the level of waste on the farm and its impact on the environment could be reduced considerably."

While much of what Mr Hardy had proposed could be adopted by those in the industry, added Kemiras Roger Chesher, there were still some problems to overcome.

One was the task of making a re-stitched bag strong enough to withstand the rigours of transport and storage. The other involves cost. The current low price of oil means that the raw material of 500kg bags is relatively cheap. So theres a danger that by the time transport and handling costs are taken into account, it can be almost as expensive to re-stitch an old bag as make a new one.