Arable Matters by Brian Henderson

Plastic has undoubtedly been one of the marvels of our age and modern life – even in an agricultural sense – is almost unthinkable without it.

Indeed, many have felt that after the Stone Age and the Iron Age, our current epoch might be looked upon as the plastic age by future generations such is our reliance on this wonder material.

But the plastic-fantastic mind set has changed – and it’s been almost impossible to turn on the television in recent months without hearing about the harm which the careless disposal of packaging and other plastic materials is causing to wildlife and the environment in general.

And while the banning of free supermarket carrier bags was a step in the right direction, there has been another huge upsurge in public reaction to the wasteful use of plastics. And anyone with school-age children probably takes their life in their hands if they buy anything that’s wrapped in the stuff.

Our own industry hasn’t been immune from the use – and probably the over-use – of plastics either though. Farming’s use of plastic has sky-rocketed in recent years as well, with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste produced every year.

If you’re a livestock farmer, there’s silage wrap and net wrap by the boatload to dispose of. The arable sector doesn’t escape either, with fertiliser bags and liners, chemical containers and root crop fleece representing only the tip of the farm waste iceberg.

To be fair, though, there’s been a fair amount of this stuff recycled in recent years. Many of the schemes were originally run by charities on a voluntary basis – and, of course, that meant that you got a warm glow from recycling and another from supporting the charity.

However, the commercial sector soon realised that they could charge us for taking the stuff away and then, after they’d processed the waste, they had a product to sell back to us at the end of the day as well!

It would be fair to say, though, that not only can the recycling of a lot of this waste plastic be a bit expensive, but it often takes a hell of a long time for the stuff to be uplifted. Having it lying about on an extended basis not only looks awful, but also offers a great haven for rats, mice and all sorts of other pests.

So, while it’s long been the case that we’re not allowed to burn big piles of plastic, there’s been a longstanding arrangement that you were allowed to get a slightly less self-righteous warm glow by burning the stuff in a simple drum incinerator.

Provided the use of these incinerators meant that the waste went up with very little smoke, burning at a high temperature with a good flow-through of air, we were allowed to do so – and holding the required exemption licence from SEPA was checked by assurance scheme inspectors.

However, things are about to change – and Scotland’s farmers could be looking down the barrel of a very expensive waste disposal bill in the near future.

Apparently, a change in EU law which, needless to say, triggered a subsequent change in Scottish law back in early 2013 means that the exemptions which most of us hold to incinerate plastics in drum incinerators are no longer legal.

In fact this sort of incineration has not been allowed in any other parts of the UK for many years.In order to swiftly cover its backside, the Scottish Government has tasked SEPA with breaking the news and getting farmers in Scotland to toe the line by banning the on-farm incineration of waste plastics.

So, it looks like that in the near future our licences will be revoked. But even with the best will in the world, while everyone is keen to see as much plastic recycled as possible – getting the infrastructure set up to handle the amounts we’re speaking about from all the airts and pairts of Scotland will be no mean feat.

Even if it is possible to do it in an economic and environmentally sensible way, it certainly won’t happen overnight.

Now NFU Scotland, which has been lobbying on this one, claimed that the Scottish Government and SEPA have accepted that farmers who currently incinerate their waste plastics will need time to make arrangements for this to be either collected for recycling or disposed to a licensed facility.

While the word on the street is that the ban won’t come into place until January 1, 2019 – this has yet to be officially confirmed by the powers that be.

However, while SEPA, Zero Waste Scotland and the Scottish Government claim they’re working to produce guidance on the changes, there’s been no announcement on what they’re actually going to do – despite the fact that just such an announcement was due to be made a week or two back but appeared to be pulled at the last minute.

Now nobody likes bad news and you might think it’s a good thing the longer they keep quiet about it. But who’s going to bother starting to look at alternatives until we’re told what’s actually happening?

With little chance of the start date for the ban changing, the later an official announcement is made, the greater the degree of chaos it’s likely to stir up.

So an early announcement – along with an assurance that there will be a well-planned and well-communicated transition over a sensible timescale – is required with some urgency, as is an undertaking that SEPA will regulate the issue in a pragmatic and proportionate manner.

But there doesn’t seem to be much of a hurry at SEPA’s end. Speaking to them this week, I was issued with the following statement: "SEPA will produce an information leaflet specifically for land managers and will write to the 5000 existing registered exemptions, advising them of a change in the law and removing their exemptions from the Public Register.

"To clarify: The existing registered exemptions can currently burn plastics, but SEPA will be writing to them to say that we are removing their exemption and to advise them that they will no longer be able to burn plastic.

“We are working on our approach to implementation with NFUS and other partners. We will be able to advise further when we have agreed our approach.”

But, in a deeply ironic way, this new burden just makes you realise that, no matter what sort of exemption licence you hold, there’s going to be no bonfire of regulations of the kind some had hoped for after Brexit.