Northern Ontario creates plastics pilot project

Merna Emara and Natali Trivuncic

The Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA) is collaborating with the Northern Caucus of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (NCFA) to work on a three-year pilot project to collect used agricultural plastics away from farms in order to recycle and recover them.

According to a report by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, agriculture in northern communities are a key economic driver in the provincial economy. With about 12,220 jobs and $589 million in GDP, the agricultural sector continues to grow, with northern farm receipts increasing from $182 million in 2006 to $206 million in 2017.

However, this growth is coupled with an expected increase in plastic waste from agricultural practices. Annual recoverable and recyclable agricultural plastic waste is estimated to be about 819 tonnes and is expected to increase to 941 tonnes by the end of 2022. The Rainy River District accounts for about 95 tonnes of agricultural plastics.

The project that began last May, will divert agricultural plastics from ending up in landfills by assessing its stewardships and its ability to be recovered and recycled.

This will be achieved in three steps. First, a plastic compactor has to be bought. Farmers then have to bale off their plastics before they finally drop off the bales.

A single compactor costs about $900. This includes the compactor itself, the shipping costs and participating in the pilot project itself. Support and resources will be provided to make the bale. The only cost that will be levied on farmers will be the purchase of the compactor itself and any indirect costs related to making the bale and dropping it off.

One compactor can compress 500 hay bale covers into one single 1,000-pound bale ready for market.

In studying how to manage agricultural waste, three types of plastics were assessed. The first is polypropylene (PP) which includes woven bags and net wrap. The second type is low density polyethylene (LDPE) which includes silage and bunker covers. The final type of plastic is linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) which includes bale and silage wrap.

LLDPE accounts for about 70 per cent of agricultural plastic waste generated in northern Ontario and therefore will be the focus of the program. It is estimated that the annual plastic waste from northern Ontario would be 518.8 tonnes.
Stephanie Vanthof, one of the managers of the Northern Ontario Plastics Disposal Pilot Project, said they have been looking at how much plastic they generate and what they can do with it for a number of years.

“The pilot project itself is essentially consolidating and aggregating that plastic on farms or amongst farms and then taking that plastic to recover in some sort of meaningful and sustainable way to deal with the issues of plastic on farms,” Vanthof said.

How does a compactor work?

Vanthof said the farmer puts their plastic in and then they use their tractor or some sort of hydraulic equipment to press the plunger down. That process would compact the plastic. When it’s full, they then tie it, pull the box off it and then it sits there until it can be picked up or taken to another facility for further compacting.

“Once we have a number of bales in an area, then we schedule a centralized pickup/drop off base,” Vanthof said. “The farmer would drop off the bale, we would tag it because we trace every bale, kind of asses the quality and then we would load it up and ship it to the end user who would then convert it into fuel and electricity,” Vanthof said.

In helping create this project, funding for the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) was received. Vanthof said the project was estimated to cost $170,000 and CAP provided some of the funding while some came from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. Vanthof adds that they expect those numbers to be lower because the pandemic has caused them to slow down the project.

Vanthof added that they left some leeway for shipping in the budget as well.

“Ideally we’d like to take the northwest plastic somewhere to western Canada, a little close but just in case we can’t, we can ship it all the way to eastern Ontario,” Vanthof said.

Vanthof said they have about 20 compactors across northern Ontario, most of them are used on farms and there are about 90 tonnes of plastic bales ready to go but they are waiting for the end user to open so they can start shipping.

Bernie Zimmerman, a member service representative for the Rainy River District, said there are two compactors in the Rainy River area and they are looking at possibly having communal compacting days. He adds that they are still in the process of lining up participants.

“Agriculture only makes up about five per cent of the waste plastic but it’s unfortunately the most visible because people drive by and see it out in their fields,” Zimmerman said.

Vanthof said COVID has slowed down the project and with almost a year gone by since it began, they are hoping to extend the project past it’s 2022 end date.

“The whole point of the project is to assess the real costs and the real efficiencies,” Vanthof said. “Depending on the true costs of this, there may be a way to continue this moving forward without funding, we just at this point don’t know what those costs are going to look like.”

Vanthof added that they hope to collect enough data to make informed decision around their plastic stewardship and to make sure that the program works for farmers.