Plastic is one of the most versatile tools on farms, with uses ranging from storing chemicals and transporting water to controlling weeds and protecting crops.
- Almost 12 per cent of plastic used in Australia is recycled, but the agriculture industry’s recycling rate is only 5.2 per cent
- Recyclers say Australia has been lazy about developing end products for plastic waste
- Farmers across the country are finding creative ways to recycle plastic into products such as fence posts
But getting rid of it when it is no longer needed has become a major environmental problem, after China stopped taking most of Australia’s plastic waste and other countries followed suit.
“The bottom line is it’s got nowhere to go. It’s collapsed,” plastics recycler David Hodge said.
“There’s a few manufacturers in Australia that can handle it and the oversupply is just killing us. There’s just way, way too much plastic.”
Mr Hodge runs a plastic film recycling plant called Plastic Forests at Albury in New South Wales.
Around 20 per cent of what he recycles comes from the farming sector, including silage and cotton wrap, grain tubes and bunker tarps.
“The difficulty with the agricultural side of life is you end up getting a lot of rocks, a lot of stones. You get steel ploughs and the odd dead furry animal that has crawled into the heap,” he said.
While almost 12 per cent of plastic consumed in Australia is recycled, according to the Australian Plastics Recycling Survey, the agriculture industry’s recycling rate is only 5.2 per cent.
Despite the introduction of some tough penalties, which vary from state to state, plastic waste is often burned or buried on farms.
“A lot of [farmers] were saying ‘we feel terrible about doing it this way, how can we ethically dispose of this?'” Phoebe Gulliver from Holbrook Landcare said.
Holbrook Landcare is among a number of groups and companies trying to turn Australia’s bad habits around.
It has launched a silage wrap and plastic twine collection service for farmers in the region.
“I think it’s good someone’s having a crack at this and hopefully it’s a real winner, because if there are people like me that have got quite a lot of silage wrap lying around and are wondering what to do with it, there’s going to be plenty more,” local farmer Cameron Lowen said.
‘Lazy’ Australia only just starting to catch up
More than 30 tonnes of plastic have already been carted to Mr Hodge’s recycling factory, where the film is turned into a range of products including wheel-stoppers, garden edging and cable covers.
While the supply of plastic outstrips the demand for products right now, he says it is time for Australia to take care of its own rubbish.
“Australia’s been enormously lazy,” Mr Hodge said.
“You’ve really got to develop end products.”
Westonfence, from Parkes in New South Wales, is another recycling company turning an agricultural problem into a farming solution.
It uses resin from recycled chemical drums to make fence posts, which can then be electrified.
The farming family behind the business initially just wanted to keep feral animals off their own crops.
“We had a problem that we needed to fix, and then we looked around for a solution,” Duncan Abbey said.
“Right at our doorstep was the resource [we needed] to be able to use and turn into something useful.”
The chemical containers are collected as part of the national drumMUSTER program, one of the longest-running agricultural recycling schemes.
“Over 20 years we have collected over 33.5 million drums around Australia,” Dominique Doyle from Agsafe, which runs the program, said.
“That equates to 38,000 tonnes diverted from landfill and into recycling.”
China ban sees local companies get creative
Another national collection program is Farm Waste Recovery, which gives single-use fertiliser bags a future.
It was first adopted by the cane industry in North Queensland, where 80 per cent of the bags are now picked up.
Most are sent offshore for processing, but the China ban has the program’s managing director looking for local answers.
Stephen Richards has an ambitious plan to build 26 resin factories which he says will have the capacity to turn all of Australia’s agricultural plastic waste into products.
“It’s really focussed everybody’s attention to say there is a domestic problem that we need to do something about,” Mr Richards said.
He is asking governments to help fund the $160 million project.
“People are starting to think about new and funky ways to use plastic for all sorts of things and who knows where that’s going to go?”