The fight to recycle Agassiz's farm plastic

For a decade, Agassiz farmers have been struggling to keep their plastic recycling program afloat. But with external funding about to run out, farmers worry they will have to head back to the dump.

Agricultural plastics, like the wrap covering this hay bale, as dirty and challenging to recycle. That hasn’t stopped Agassiz dairy farmers from trying to do their part for more than a decade. 📷 Veltman34/Shutterstock

This story first appeared in the June 18 edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.

For more than a decade, Agassiz farmers have been fighting to recycle their twine, feed bags, bale wraps, and other plastics.

Ever since a temporary agricultural recycling program fizzled out in 2012, a small group of dairy farmers in Agassiz have been devising ways to keep their plastics out of the landfill. They spent their own money to send plastics to specialized recycling centres for years, regrouped when a local depot closed, and partnered with a Canada-wide recycling team.

But external funding is close to running out for the project. And although another stop-gap program is in the works, local farmers still worry a lack of funding will send their plastic back to the dump.

Let’s start recycling

Farming produces a lot of garbage. Most of it is plastic.

In 2012, BC farms produced an estimated 3,620 tonnes of plastic waste, according to a report produced that year by a non-profit recycling organization. Nearly 60% of that plastic was from seed bags, greenhouse covers, and the plastic wrapping on hay and silage bales.

(At that time, BC used roughly 3,900km of silage film and bale wrap each year—enough to nearly stretch between Agassiz and Fredericton, N.B.)

Fraser Valley dairy farmers have been at the leading edge of efforts to reduce the amount of waste headed to landfills in BC. Even as farms were producing thousands of tons of waste in 2012, nearly three-quarters of Fraser Valley dairy farmers were separating and storing their twine, bags, wraps for recycling. Every four months, the farmers would drop off their plastics at a collective depot, where it would be shipped to a recycling facility.

The recycling was part of a Fraser Valley Regional District pilot project started in 2010, with a $10,000 grant from the Ministry of Agriculture that covered shipping costs to recycling facilities. The FVRD had hoped the success of its program would convince the provincial government to start its own agricultural recycling system. But that didn’t happen.

The FVRD project ended in 2012, and many farmers returned to either burying or burning their plastics. A core group of Agassiz dairy farmers, however, took matters into their own hands.

Agassiz recycles

After the demise of the FVRD program, local farmers formed their own group—the Kent Agricultural Plastics Recycling Committee. In 2014, they were able to start recycling again.

They had found a facility that could take their dirty plastics, and a core collection of advocates reignited the program locally, with the hope that perseverance could convince the province to step in someday.

Agassiz dairy farmers continued to collect their plastics, this time in one-tonne bags on their properties. When a committee member came to pick them up, the farmer’s would pay $20 per bag for delivery to the recycling depot in Langley.

It wasn’t just good for the environment. Recycling was cheaper than delivering the plastic to the landfill: depots pay for plastic waste because they sell it to recycling facilities. (Those facilities then produce plastic pellets, which can be made into other products like fence posts, containers, pots, buckets, and flexible tubing.) Landfills, on the other hand, have weight- and waste-based fees for dumping. Burning—the other popular option for disposing of plastic waste on farms—is cheaper than both.

Under the leadership of dairy farmer and recycling advocate Dave Hastie, Agassiz’s recycling program trucked along for seven years. Hastie kept waiting for the province to step in. And while he waited, the world market for agricultural plastics changed.

For decades, countries like Canada had shipped their recycling to Asian countries to be processed, with more than half ending up in China. But in 2018, China permanently banned the import of most plastic waste to the country. The result was a major shift in the global recycling industry.

Over the next few years, a domestic recycling industry began to develop in North America, albeit slowly. (Agricultural plastics are often dirty and challenging to recycle—a factor that led to China banning plastic recycling imports in the first place.) But, a 2019 report from Cleanfarms—the same non-profit behind the 2012 report on agriculture recycling in BC—noted that recycling markets everywhere remained scarce.

By 2021, Agassiz farmers had lost their depot in Langley. (Hastie said it didn’t want their meagre amount of recycling, as the depot itself had no place to send it.) So they had to start tossing their plastic: several loads were dumped at Bailey’s landfill in Chilliwack while the committee looked for a new place to deliver.

Hastie worried they wouldn’t be able to find a new depot. That, he said in 2021, would mean the death of the program: “To have it end like this is absolutely sinful.”

Enter Cleanfarms

Agassiz’s recycling program didn’t end in 2021. Instead, Cleanfarms, the same organization that had been writing reports and helping other provinces manage their agricultural recycling, stepped in.

“They already had this really engaged group of farmers that wanted to do something,” Kim Timmer, Cleanfarms’ director of stakeholder relations and policy, said. “We were just able to help them find an end market.”

Cleanfarms took over the collection of Agassiz’s plastic waste, delivering it at no charge to an Alberta facility that turns the waste into pellets. There are now 18 farmers involved in the Agassiz program. Cleanfarms provided many of those farms with compactors to make it easier to manage the plastic; some farms converted those manual machines to hydraulic ones, and other farmers went out and bought their own.

“They deserve real kudos for what they’ve done to date,” Timmer said. “There’s really strong collaboration that already exists, which does make our job a lot easier.”

But external forces are conspiring to make Cleanfarms’ job harder.

Shipping costs are currently covered by a Dairy Farmers of Canada grant—and that will only support the program until the end of 2024. If another grant can’t be found to pick up the cost, farmers will either need to pay for delivery themselves or send the program to the dump.

Timmer said Cleanfarms is hoping to find a long-term funding partner, potentially through one of the companies that produce agricultural plastics in the first place. Although government funding is an option, it’s a bandaid and not a solution, as the money typically only lasts a few years before running out.

After years of paying for collection, current committee head Gerald Struys said Agassiz farmers likely wouldn’t be willing to take it on again. The cost of shipping has doubled from what farmers were paying before. Although the program has $3,000 in reserve to cover a small gap in service, Struys said “there’s no way the farmers are going to agree to pay” for long-term recycling.

If “our contract runs out, we most likely won’t be doing the recycling,” Struys said.

The next steps

Today, the Agassiz program has two chances of long-term survival—although its success is not guaranteed.

New hope could come from the Fraser Valley Regional District’s latest attempt to restart a temporary farm-based recycling program.

Last September, the FVRD board signed a contract with Cleanfarms to create a five-year agricultural plastics recycling program in the valley. (An FVRD spokesperson said the program remains in the very early discussion stages, despite the signed contract.) The first year would be focused on recruiting farmers outside of Agassiz, with a goal of having 62 farms involved across the valley.

The project would cost nearly $500,000 for the five years. More than half of that would be for compactors to help bale the plastics. Transportation costs would vary based on how many farmers participate, and where new plastic markets develop. The FVRD solid waste department would cover more than half the cost—and staff said the budget has room for that cost. (The FVRD said it was also looking at grant opportunities.)

Cleanfarms would pay for the remainder, meaning it would face the same challenge it has with Agassiz’s current program: finding good funding partners.

The FVRD program is just another pilot—intended to last five years and no more. But the hope is that it will pave the way for future programs, by establishing “economies of scale” and getting the provincial government on board.

BC may also finally help out after repeated calls from Kent and others to start an agricultural recycling program in the province. But it’s not clear what a BC-wide program would look like—and if it would actually be useful for Agassiz dairy farmers who have been working to recycle for a decade.

In 2021, shortly before the Agassiz plastics committee joined forces with Cleanfarms, BC municipalities endorsed Kent’s request for a BC-wide agricultural plastics recycling program. At the time, the province only acknowledged the problem and said they would talk with local governments about diverting farm waste.

So far, the province has talked with northern BC communities about recycling, and has started another consultation process, with a recycling plan to be developed in 2025.

It’s not clear what a BC-wide program would look like—and the Ministry of Environment doesn’t seem to know either. A spokesperson said a new policy would focus on all industrial, commercial, and institutional waste, and look at both prevention and recycling.

For Agassiz’s farmers, who have been recycling their plastics for more than two decades, every bit of external support could help prolong their efforts. The FVRD’s project could both save and expand their recycling program. A proper BC-wide policy might do the same.

But as the challenges over the years have shown, it takes a lot more than just a blue bin to keep agricultural plastics out of the landfill. Consistent, long-term funding, external support, and adequate recycling facilities are all needed to make sure farmers can handle their plastic sustainably.

“Everyone wants to see it [recycled], instead of being burned or dumped in a landfill,” Struys said.

“Just like with household recycling, you make the effort to do what you can, and you hope it ends up getting recycled at the other end.

“But,” he added, “you can only do so much.”

This story first appeared in the June 18 edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.


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