HOW BEST TO HANDLE AGRICULTURAL WASTE PLASTICS?

January 28, 2008
Written by Peter Mitham
There are alternative materials and recycling programs already available, B.C. growers were told at a conference earlier this year. “The biggest problem of recycling plastics right now is the sorting cost,” said one speaker.

28The greenhouse sector likes to consider itself a green and clean industry.

But with plastic pots, trays and polyethylene film among the top forms of waste agricultural plastic in British Columbia’s lush Fraser Valley, the challenge is in how best to deal with these materials in the most environmentally sensitive way.

In Holland, growers must reuse or recycle their waste plastic materials rather than throw them away. In the U.K., new agricultural waste regulations prohibit the burning or burying of waste plastic.

A panel at the Pacific Agriculture Show earlier this year discussed some of the options available to greenhouse vegetable and flower growers interested in reducing the amount of plastic waste they generate.

Prior to the panel’s discussion, B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands nursery industry specialist Dave Woodske said most growers have three main alternatives when it comes to reducing plastic waste.

These include reusing pots and trays, which isn’t a favoured option because of plant health concerns; recycling plastic, an option limited by the need to collect, transport and clean the materials; and using the waste plastic as an alternative fuel source.

But Woodske said opportunities also exist to reduce plastic consumption altogether, or shift to biodegradable or compostable materials made from natural fibres rather than petrochemicals.

“As the price of oil continues to rise, certainly biopolyfilm and [bio-]plastics become more attractive,” he said.

Biodegradable alternatives to traditional plastics include products made from peat moss, coconut fibre and even poultry feathers, Woodske said. Unfortunately, these have various problems, ranging from unattractive surface textures to a tendency to crack and host fungi and algae, he said, noting that some of the alternative materials also release phytotoxins that inhibit plant growth.

Panelists built on Woodske’s overview of alternatives with a discussion of examples.

Roelof Drost, national sales and marketing manager in Canada for Jiffy Products of America Inc., said there is renewed interest in his company’s traditional peat pots.

Jiffy produced the original peat pot and is remaking the product to reflect current market conditions.

Slicker packaging accompanies a new line of open-walled peat pots that allow for better root development, for example.

“Our pots will always give a healthier root system than a pot you can’t grow through,” Drost said, noting that peat pots also have the potential to save on labour.

Jiffy is also developing a completely biodegradable offering that doesn’t use plastic packaging.

Gary Moran, of Northern Innovators Inc. in Langley, also touted the value of natural fibres. The company is developing planting accessories in eight different colours that use bamboo, rice, straw and corn fibres.
They are durable, tough, and resistant to mould, dampness and freezing. “It looks like this product will hold up from the grower to the retailer,” he said, noting that plant plates designed for home use could last as long as three years.

Other panelists focused on addressing the need for some form of plastic in greenhouse operations.

Vancouver-based Plastic Solutions Canada Inc. produces a range of products suitable for landfills or composting.

The products are traditional plastics infused with an additive that causes them to break down over a given period of time. Company president Dick Freeman said the company can tailor the formula to suit growers’ needs. It simply needs to know the end use and approximate lifespan of the required material. It will then formulate the additive to prevent biodegradation until the conditions are met.

Recycling also has a place in strategies to make more efficient use of plastic.

Jack Helps, president of Delta-based recycler Helps Plastic Corp., is keen to find suppliers of waste plastic. His company produces plastic piping as well as plastic blocks suitable for retaining walls where the weight of concrete isn’t required. The beauty of these products, he said, is that they can incorporate a wide range of plastics.

“I’m looking for anyone with plastic generated in the agricultural field,” he said.

Helps said the main challenge recyclers face is not in getting value out of waste plastic, which lacks the inherent value of metals, it’s in covering the costs associated with the pick-up, processing, and marketing of waste plastic.

“The biggest problem of recycling plastics right now is the sorting cost,” he said.

His presentation was one of the most discussed during the panel, however, highlighting growers’ interest in managing their plastic waste responsibly.

Peter Mitham is a freelance writer and photographer in Vancouver.

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