6 November 1999


Legislation on controlling agricultural waste may be just months away. Tom Allen-Stevens looks at the question of recycling.

THERE are some products, like strobilurins for example, that come into the agricultural market and enjoy a meteoric rise to fame. The returnable container is not one of these. Despite its unquestioned benefits, its uptake on farm has been slow.

Growers have been reluctant to bear the cost of adapting the sprayer and some of the systems have been too slow. Distributors have been reluctant to bear the cost of returning the containers to the manufacturers, while manufacturers have been nervous about the initial high cost of packaging and have been unable to agree on a universally acceptable transfer valve.

Novartis and Cyanamid have been at the forefront of returnable containers in the UK. Cyanamids Eric Gussin explains the difficulties: "In the US each manufacturer has a unique adapter, so that growers wishing to use refillable containers spend a fortune and end up with sprayers that look more like Christmas trees. We clearly need to avoid this happening in the UK." But improvements to both systems may hopefully change attitides.

Thankfully, agreement has been all but finalised on no more than two systems: the LinkPak from Novartis and the rest of the industry using systems based on a universal micromatic valve, like Cyanamids Ecomatic. Growers therefore need no more than two transfer systems fitted to their sprayers.

The Ecomatic transfer system has also been speeded up with Team Sprayers Signet 2000 system which uses a pump driven from a tractor battery. Cyanamid claim a 25-litre keg can be emptied in two minutes regardless of temperature.

Some distributors, such as UAP, claim to be more proactive. "Weve been implementing both the LinkPak and Ecomatic systems with our customers. In todays economic climate its difficult to afford the extra travelling required with returnable containers, which explains the reluctance in the industry. We havent a vast number of farmers using returnables, but its growing and we believe they are an important step towards reducing waste on farms," maintains Richard Penhale, UAPs business development director.

One of the main factors restricting growers from adopting returnables is that of the many hundreds of formulations on the market, less than a couple of dozen are available in reusable containers.

Fertiliser facts

Unfortunately the fertiliser industry appears to have made less of an effort when it comes to reusable packaging. Pack design has changed very little since the first ICI dumpy bags appeared on farm, and over the years the industry has actually come to favour one trip packaging over any attempts made towards multi-trip bags.

Ed Hardy farms in Cheshire and recently won a FWAG/Kemira/Farmers Weekly waste solutions competition. He is frustrated that more has not been done and has developed his own ideas on how the problem could be solved. "Manufacturers could simply place a woven fabric tape on the bottom of the bag. This would both mark where the bag is to be cut and stop the cut from fraying. The bag could then be returned to the manufacturer for resealing or stitching back together and reused. I am aware that there is a safety implication here – the split would obviously have to overcome the rigours of transport, storage and handling – but I dont believe this is a problem that cannot be solved."

But David Heather, director general of the Fertiliser Manufacturers Association, points out that weakness at the bottom of the bag is only part of the problem with reusing packaging in this way. "Handling of fertiliser sacks on farm is not an area where stringent controls can be made – the loops are very easily damaged so that they cannot be used again. There is also the problem of cleanliness. With the best will in the world, there is no way a farmer can be expected to keep the sack sufficiently clean until it leaves the farm. Attempts have been made to recycle the inner bags into park benches and fencing posts, but the cost of collection is prohibitive."

Reusing the sacks is not a new idea; shortly after large bags were first introduced the larger spreading contractors would gather up their bags and return them for reusing. But this effectively came to a halt when price incentives induced growers to buy fertiliser months before it was needed and use their own kit to spread it. Manufacturers found they were having difficulty retrieving bags and sought the cheaper one-trip type of packaging.

Mike Smith from Dorton Packaging, a large supplier of the sacks to fertiliser manufacturers, has seen the price he receives for the sacks reduce by a third in 12 years. "Bag technology has not really moved on much, but the over-riding factors that govern the design are safety and price."

He has seen various recycling schemes come and go. "There was one venture where old 50kg sacks were placed at the bottom of the large bags over the split before they were refilled. They were difficult to use on farm, however, and it became apparent that there was going to be a logistical problem in collecting them. Its a nice idea in theory, but it doesnt work in practice."

Transfer System Cost (£) Mode of Transfer Plus Points Minus Points

Team Sprayer £1,350 Pump through * Pump ensures * Expensive

Signet 2000 Micromatic valve quick transfer * Can be * Empties ordinary cumbersome

cans (with adapter)

* Accurately (digitally)

measures chemical


Cypherco £500 Pump through * Pump ensures quick * Chemical

Micromatic valve transfer measurement not as

* Cheaper than accurate through

Signet 2000 graduated vessel

* Can be cumbersome

Fastran £395 Venturi on sprayer * Needs no external * Speed depends

through Micromatic power source on strength of

valve * Cheapest Micromatic sprayer pump &

system consistency of


* Chemical measurement

not as accurate through graduated vessel

LinkPak £20 Gravity-fed through * Simple * Not compatible

LinkPak coupling * Cheap with micromatic valves

unit on existing * Also handles * Pack inverted,

induction bowl granules so size restricted

to 10 litres

* Measurement

difficult for chemicals with thick consistency

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