Plastic film, fertilizer, and treated fence posts often end up in burn piles and can pollute the air with cancer-causing substances. It’s important to have alternative outlets for such waste. 

Plastic film, fertilizer, and treated fence posts often end up in burn piles and can pollute the air with cancer-causing substances. It’s important to have alternative outlets for such waste. 

Greater emphasis on the responsible management of agricultural wastes now encompasses plastics and other materials at two landfills in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

This spring, the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen in Penticton, British Columbia, Canada, began waiving tipping fees for agricultural waste that is sorted into plastics, metals, and organic material such as tree stumps and cuttings.

The move is a step towards better management of the local waste stream and improving the air quality in the southern Okanagan region, said RDOS air-quality spokesperson Janice Johnson, coordinator of the initiative.

Johnson is working with orchardists, vegetable growers, and ranchers to reduce the amount of waste burned, often in contravention of provincial waste management regulations, and to responsibly manage the waste coming into regional landfills.

“We’re not just targeting fruit growers. We’re looking at all waste and air pollutant activity, and how can we help minimize that, or, in certain cases, stop it,” Johnson said.

Plastic waste is a primary concern. Though orchards and vineyards generate a relatively small amount of plastic waste, Johnson said anecdotal reports indicate that plastic film, fertilizer and pesticide containers, and PVC irrigation piping often wind up in burn piles along with treated fence posts, tree stumps, and pruned vines and branches.

“I’ve had numerous calls,” Johnson said. “We’re still in shock at how much [plastic] is being burned out there, but we’ve moved into a place where we’re taking action very quickly. We’ve offered that they can bring this plastic in. And then we’re trying to put education out there.”

Air quality

While recycled plastics can be used in a variety of new products, burned plastics release cancer-causing substances into the air and contribute to lower air quality.

Recycling plastics is “not an issue” for orchardists, said Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association. A pesticide container collection program coordinated by CropLife Canada, the national pesticide industry association, accepts triple-rinsed containers at 21 locations around British Columbia. The program is similar to a U.S. initiative operated by the Ag Container Recycling Council.

Still, orchardist Allan Patton, who serves as an area director with RDOS, said an average orchard generates as many as 20 containers an acre each year from fertilizers and pesticides.

While he takes them back to South Valley Sales, an agricultural supply business in Oliver and Keremeos that’s part of CropLife Canada’s container collection network, he knows that not all growers do so. South Valley General Manager Jim Bartlett said return rates run about 30 percent, or just under half the national average CropLife reports of 70 percent.

“I don’t think that’s the fault of the farmers. I think they just don’t know that it’s there,” said Patton, who just discovered the program himself last year.

Previously, he reused rinsed containers, gave them to local vegetable farmers for reuse, or took them to the local landfill.

Having alternative outlets for waste plastic is important to growers, he said.

A lack of cost-effective options increases the likelihood growers will dispose of plastics in ways that hardly conform to current notions of best practices.

“They’re trying to find an economic solution that works for them,” explained Lisa Friend, special projects coordinator with the not-for-profit advocacy group ReSources for Sustainable Communities in Bellingham, Washington. Friend spoke at a seminar on plastics recycling at the Pacific Agriculture Show in Abbotsford earlier this year.

She is developing programs that will help farmers in Whatcom County recycle some of the 1,500 tons of waste plastic local farms generate each year.

Without a viable recycling program, Friend said many farmers burn their plastic waste despite the acknowledged drawbacks for human health and the environment.

Expense

She said even a nominal sum would encourage most farmers to salvage waste plastics, since most would settle for even a small payment rather than no payment at all. Given the current high price of gas, transportation is often viewed as just one more expense for no return.

Steve George, president of Northwest Ag Plastics Inc. in Moxee, Washington sees a similar challenge in encouraging growers to return containers.

“Sometimes they have to haul those containers to a central location for us to pick them up, and there has to be a desire to do that,” he said. “Even though the service we provide is free, it takes a little bit of time and some management.”