In early 2022, Berry Global began a collaboration with Cleanfarms and PolyAg Recycling in Canada to close the loop in the recovery of used agricultural films and grain bag material in order to create new products with recycled content.
The origins of this pioneering project date back to 2010 and the first exploration into effective ways to collect used grain bags for recycling. The current program began in 2017 in the province of Saskatchewan and has since expanded to the provinces of Manitoba, British Columbia and Alberta.
This White Paper explains the background to the project, its success and expansion and looks at the wider implications for the global agricultural sector as the world continues to transition to a circular and net zero economy.
Films’ Key Role in Agricultural Production
For many plastics products, sustainability is intrinsically linked to the ‘3Rs’ – reduce, reuse, recycle – but there are other ways in which the material can contribute to a more sustainable world.
Plastics can play an important role in helping to reduce food waste. As well as protecting and extending the life of foods in their finished state, plastics are equally critical in the initial growing stages.
With forage being a vital component of livestock diet, the conversion of silage from forage crops is an essential part of modern beef and dairy productions systems. Agricultural films are used in part to protect a variety of crops incorporated in silage, to ensure high quality winter feed supplies.
Agricultural bags provide fast and efficient storage solutions for commodities such as forage, grain, citrus peel, brewers mash, fertilizer and compost.
Well-maintained grain bags can store grain for as long as one year and forage as much as two.
A key development in agricultural films was the introduction of co-extruded multi-layer silage bale wrap which was first introduced by Berry over 30 years ago. Since then, we have seen the introduction of 5-, 7- and now 9-layer stretch films, offering high levels of protection and reliability.
The Canadian Project
Dealing with plastic waste is an issue that has dominated governments’ environmental policies throughout the world for many years. In Canada, the government has launched its Zero Plastics Waste agenda to keep plastics in the economy and out of the environment.
Nevertheless, in Canada farmers have already been quite progressive and forward-thinking when it comes to dealing with their plastic waste. Containers have been recycled for over 30 years and grain bag recycling tests started well before the federal zero waste initiatives, with the Saskatchewan initiative coming into effect at around the same time as the first public discussions on federal zero waste.
The challenge for agricultural bags and films is that while they play a vital role in crop storage, protection and enhancement, by the very nature of this role, they are large and bulky and therefore pose something of a challenge when it comes to their end of life.
The priority for the disposal of these products is that they do not end up in landfill sites. And in Canada, the message to the industry has been clear - if you make it, it is your responsibility to take care of it when its work is done. This is manifested in Saskatchewan’s The Agricultural Packaging Product Waste Stewardship Regulation, introduced in July 2016. It requires the establishment of an industry-led stewardship program for agricultural grain bags, with a solution to collect and recycle the grain storage bags sold into the province by manufacturers.
As far back as 2010, in the city of Moose Jaw, the Moose Jaw River Watershed Stewards hosted the first grain bag collection day. The project developed over the years, investigating ways to effectively collect and transport the used material. By 2017, there were 14 collection sites around the province and over 2,500 tons of material had been recycled.
In response to the The Agricultural Packaging Product Waste Stewardship Regulation, Cleanfarms, a non-profit environmental stewardship organization, developed a Product Stewardship Program on behalf of grain bag first sellers in the province. Following government approval, the Saskatchewan Grain Bag Recycling Program launched in 2018.
The program now enables farmers to collect used grain bags once they had finished with them on the farm and to take them to collection sites for recycling. To facilitate recycling, the empty bags are mechanically rolled, and secured with twine prior to drop off at collection sites. Details of the program can be found here and here.
Cleanfarms picks up the prepared grain bags from collection sites and transports them to specialist agricultural plastic recycler PolyAg Recycling. There they are shredded into flakes, washed, and heated and extruded into pellets. These pellets are then purchased by Berry for incorporation into the manufacture of new ag film products.
There are currently 47 collection sites throughout Saskatchewan and 8,500 tons of grain bags have been shipped since the program’s inception. In 2020, 60% of bags sold in the province were returned for recycling, which is a high return for such a young initiative. Additional grain bag recycling programs have now been established in Manitoba with pilots operating in Alberta and in one community in British Columbia.
Why are we Doing this?
It is true to say that up until recently, there has not really been a great demand for recycled content in agriculture films. However, this is starting to change and certainly the impact of climate change, the challenge of waste materials, and increasing consumer interest in protecting the environment, mean that the time to act is now. The Canadian federal and provincial governments’ commitment to zero plastics waste is likely to be repeated throughout the world.
That is why Berry has recently set sustainable packaging goals to achieve 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable fast-moving consumer packaging by 2025, and 30% circular plastic use across its fast-moving consumer goods packaging by 2030.
But equally we realize that action needs to be taken in other markets as well. As the world continues to move away from fossil fuels and implement a circular economy, the plastics industry has to take the lead, in particular in demonstrating plastics’ continuing vital role.
We need to be setting the agenda and moving forward before legislation and regulation are imposed on us. In this way, we can ensure that the solutions we initiate are workable and the products we develop practical and fit for purpose. We therefore need to start to drive demand for recycled material for agricultural applications.
Implications for Agricultural Film Manufacturers
Achieving the above aims is not as simple as it may sound. We have already highlighted in this paper plastics’ critical role in crop protection and enhancement. Much of this is down to the highly technical manufacturing processes that have been developed and refined over the years.
The incorporation of recycled pellets into the manufacturing process therefore has to be handled carefully. It is vital that the finished products retain the same high levels of performance, particularly in terms of strength and puncture resistance, to cope with the tough farm working environment and maintain the excellent protection offered by the multi-layer constructions.
For this project, we have utilized both our materials knowledge and expertise and the vast amount of experience we have garnered through our unique processing and extrusion capabilities. These will help us to create products which are comparable to those manufactured entirely from virgin material.
It is a gradual process. Some of our initial production runs incorporated just five percent recycled material. But our ongoing goal is to continue to optimize our manufacturing techniques so that we can steadily increase the amounts. Our immediate goal is to reach 50 percent and ultimately the objective is to have the ability to make products entirely from recycled material. This will also be dependent on working with local recycling companies to secure enough recycled material.
The success and expansion of the Saskatchewan Grain Bag Recycling Program emphasizes the vast impact that schemes can have on the progression of circularity.
The program’s successful implementation in Canada indicates the feasibility of collection programs for agricultural films recycling and suggests their ability to be implemented with relative ease in smaller territories. It also underlines the value in industry taking initiative and the importance of having the support of national and local government, as well as other interested parties, such as NGOs.
As a film manufacturer, Berry recognizes the immense potential for plastics to help drive a circular economy. We will continue enabling collected materials to be recycled into new products to help drive demand for more products made with recycled content. However, the success of this project will depend on full collaboration with all interested parties.
In a world where plastics’ role is continually being questioned and challenged, it is essential to continue to demonstrate the material’s vital contribution to achieving a circular and net zero economy. Closed loop recycling is a vital part of this, and the agricultural films sector has the opportunity to take the lead.