FARMERS IN Scotland are no longer allowed to burn their plastic waste on-farm, following a ban which came into force on January 1, 2019 – bringing it into line with the rest of the UK.

85,000 tonnes of agricultural waste is generated on UK farms yearly, but without the means to dispose or export it internationally, farmers are seeing a build-up of plastic waste on their farms. Similarly, a bottleneck is developing at recycling depots up and down the country, with plenty of waste coming in, but nowhere to export it to.

Piles of waste littering the Scottish countryside could leave a scar on a landscape which has been the selling point of a world-renowned tourism industry – presenting an urgent problem to the Scottish Government on how they can best manage this potential crisis.

One family duo who are doing their bit to combat the impending plastic problem are brothers Iain and Stephen Birnie, who together run SIB services in Aberdeen. Coinciding with the recent ban on burning plastic on farms, they became agents for a product which would help farmers both reduce waste, improve storage and keep overall costs down.

“What we are doing is basically selling a ‘baler’ to compress and reduce the volume of waste on farms in to a more manageable portion. The machine helps reduce logistic costs, improve storage space and contributes to keeping the farm yard tidy,” explained Iain Birnie.

SIB Services don’t collect and process waste themselves but through selling the balers, offer farmers the opportunity to manage the waste on their farm in a more cost-effective and sightly fashion.

“Originally we took on the dealership of the baler to help with farm logistics; haulage costs are increasing all the time, as fuel prices rise and the more you can compress waste, the higher volume which can be transported – improving overall efficiency,” Iain added. “The process creates a manageable bale which can be easily transported to collection points or the nearest waste facility by farmers themselves, without the necessity of a collection service.

“Farmers have to register with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency for free to allow them to haul their own waste – which will keep costs to the farmer down,” Iain noted.

As well as reducing haulage costs, by compressing the waste, the baler removes excess air, water and dirt, which makes it easier to store on farms until it can be collected for recycling. Also, the bale being packed tight reduces the risk of rodents nesting in the waste when stored.

“The baler also reduces the amount of plastic entering the waste stream; as it removes the need for an extra bin lining plastic sheet, which is common practice on most farms,” he continued.

Iain talked through the process of how the baler works: “There is a door at the top of the baler where you feed the wrap in by hand. This is connected to the hydraulics of the tractor and you have a handle on the baler itself which you supply with constant hydraulic feed from tractor. You operate the handle on the tractor to squash the plastic and finish the process, tying the bale manually,” he explained.

“Another advantage of a smaller baler is the farmer can change the product he is baling without having to wait for a big bale to be full and waste can then we stored on farm for three years if the waste is going to be used for recycling. Balers are simple and cost effective with no wearing parts, meaning a long-life expectancy with low running costs,” he commented.

Iain and Stephen have had a huge amount of interest from farmers since they launched their baler and noted that there has been a lot of interest from Scotland’s remote islands who are looking for a solution to their waste problem.

“Farmers don’t know what is happening and are concerned about the piles of waste building up on their farms, which are only going to get worse in time,” he stressed.

“People are coming to us as they don’t know what to do with their waste. Our business set up allows us to sell the balers across most of Scotland.”

As of January 2021, no plastic can be sent to landfill and although it is not clear yet what strategy the Scottish Government will take on the future of waste management, Iain offered his own suggestion: “The best method of getting rid of all of this waste would be to build waste energy plants, like they are successfully doing in countries like Sweden. Not only would this create jobs, but the plastic could be recycled and used for example to heat houses.

“Plastic can be burnt at controlled temperatures using various methods to reduce pollution, and as opposed to burning plastic on farms, this process could be regulated properly by the government.

“This could also be an opportunity to remove the need for processing and cleaning a lot of the waste and could allow for a more direct route for farmers straight to burning plants locally, thus saving on haulage costs,” Iain suggested.

Waste handlers on the rise

A new market is developing to handle plastic waste, with businesses springing up across Scotland, taking advantage of the increased need for farmers to dispose of their plastic. Ewan Johnston, Senior Consultant at SAC Consulting, Thainstone, has offered advice to farmers who are increasingly concerned by the build-up of waste on their farms.

“The best option for farmers is to enquire after waste recycling handlers in their area and to shop around for the right service which meets their individual needs. Depending on the outlet the waste handlers have, will determine what market suits different farmers. In some cases, it might suit farmers to transport their waste directly as opposed to arranging for collection.”

One of the longest and most established farm waste plastic recyclers in Scotland is Solway Recycling Ltd, in Dumfries, who have been in operation for over 25 years. They offer both drop-offs at their site and collections from numerous locations UK-wide.

Mr Johnston explained that one approach to support farmers to dispose of their waste efficiently would be more collaboration with collection providers to form central collection points for farmers.

“If waste handlers have one pick up point in a region it would not only reduce the travel time and distance for farmers but also stop collectors making numerous trips to farms to pick up small quantities of plastic,” he continued.

“Recycling companies would probably we willing to get on board as it would save on overall haulage costs and reduce their carbon footprint. There are already some local authorities who are taking agricultural plastic, which in theory could be mirrored across the country,” he suggested. “Farmers should contact their local authority for more information.”

Similar to Iain Birnie’s suggestion, Mr Johnston agreed that waste energy plants could be a viable option for waste disposal if markets for exporting waste are closing.

“Plastic could be used to generate energy and if this is done in an efficient way via gasification and not incineration, then there will be less fumes and you can capture the energy stored in the plastic.”

He said that future thinking will need to move in the direction of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ if we are to create a sustainable waste management plan for Scotland.

“Simple messages need to be communicated to farmers via waste handling centres, explaining that they need to keep different plastics separate. Common examples include; net wrap from black plastic, feed and fertiliser bags, mineral tubs and agri chemical containers – which have to be triple rinsed,” he continued. “All of these different plastics have different markets and values, and if farmers can be encouraged to keep their waste as clean as possible there are more opportunities for forward marketing.

“Farmers can also look at ways of recycling their plastic back in to their own farming operation. There have been numerous cases of ingenious creations where farmers have created feed troughs out of plastic drums,” he commented. “When it comes to making silage bales, if they try to wilt it so it is as dry as possible – then this will reduce the number of bales that need to be made which in turn reduces quantity of plastic, especially if farmers are having to remove their plastic and are being charged on a weight basis.

“There is also a case for silage pits as an alternative to reducing the quantity of plastic, however, there are stringent SEPA standards that need to be met if silage pits are being built and utilised, and this won’t be suitable for everyone. SEPA rules allow farmers to hold waste on-farm for up to a year and up to three years if it is being held for recycling purposes,” Ewan concluded.

Until a firmer solution to the plastic crisis is developed, there is concern in the short term that plastic piles could become a haven for vermin. If farmers are going to store waste on-farm there needs to be effective controls in place to minimise this.

Mr Johnston is now facilitating a rural innovation support service group, which examines the uses of waste plastic on farm. Drawing on the discussions of around half a dozen farming members, they are looking at immediate ways in which to dispose of plastic but are also looking at longer term solutions.