Circular Economy

Closing the loop on plastics in agriculture, horticulture and mining

Plastics have their place in society and bring considerable benefit when used and consumed responsibly. Yet we can do much more to make sure that end-of-life plastic packaging is recovered and recycled to maximise the value of the energy and materials used in its manufacture.

Today’s Meeting of Environment Ministers (MEM) in Canberra will cover some urgent issues concerning plastics packaging, battery recycling and the need to dramatically reduce waste generation in Australia. A refreshed National Waste Policy is also on the agenda.

While Australia continues to thrash out state solutions and national policies on plastics used in food and beverage packaging, plastics used in regional areas for fertilisers, grain, stock feed and extractive industries, have been overlooked by governments.

The size of the problem is significant and worthy of appropriate stewardship attention. It is estimated that 80,000 tonnes of plastic packaging are introduced into Australia each year. Over seven million bulk bags (which hold one-tonne of product) arrive empty and another three million arrive with primary product contained. It is estimated that 200 million bags (holding 15-25kg of product) also arrive each year.

To date, the vast majority of the 10 million of one-tonne Flexible Intermediate Bulk Containers (also known as FIBCs or one-tonne bulk bags), have headed straight to landfill or are illegally burned on-farm at end-of-life.

Ensuring that these bulk bags (woven polypropylene) and the smaller sacks (polypropylene and LDPE) do not end up as litter in our waterways and oceans is environmentally essential. The reality is that single-use plastics are ending up in the wrong place causing litter and threatening wildlife.

In short, bulk bag importers, farm input suppliers, local councils and farmers/consumers must work together to take responsibility for packaging materials used in agriculture and horticulture.

To address this gap and the challenge of recycling plastics packaging in regional areas, a relatively new program – Farm Waste Recovery – has been established to better deal with the millions of bulk bags and sacks used across all industry sectors that enter the Australian market each year. The one-tonne bulk bags alone represent around 33,000 tonnes of plastic per annum.

Farm Waste Recovery is an end-to-end stewardship program with a strong corporate social responsibility approach covering collection and logistics, resin processing and new product manufacturing using the recovered recyclate.

Stephen Richards, managing director of Industry Waste Recovery developed a unique environmental stewardship initiative and has been working with key stakeholders to collect and recycle used fertiliser bags.

“This week’s meeting provides a significant opportunity for all environment ministers to get behind Farm Waste Recovery and demonstrate their support for recycling plastics packaging used in regional areas,” Richards said.

Current plans include the establishment of 26 resin processing and manufacturing sites in regional areas employing upwards of 150 people, however, infrastructure support from state governments is a key requirement to trigger overall investment and operation nationwide.

“By developing a national scheme to collect and process nearly 10 million woven polypropylene bags per annum, we can help ensure they don’t end up in our waterways and oceans causing litter and threatening wildlife.”

Farm Waste Recovery is calling on all Australian environment ministers to show leadership and contribute to creating sustainable recycling options for end-of-life plastics accumulating in regional areas. Funding from the Federal and state governments will make a major difference.

“This is a sleeves-up exercise that can be accelerated and rolled-out nationwide provided Federal, state and territory environment ministers contribute funding,” Richards said.

“We are very focused on shared product responsibility, so governments certainly have a role to play.”

The bags collected through Farm Waste Recovery are processed and recycled for use in manufacturing other plastic items, including garden furniture and traffic bollards.