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Team effort to deal with mountain of waste plastic

Nationwide farm plastics recycler Plasback is helping an Ashburton business solve a daunting problem – cleaning up a massive stockpile of waste plastic

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Loading the loose plastic at the Wastebusters’ site is a messy and time-consuming job

Plasback is working with specialist company Southern Xpress to bale and remove about 1000 tonnes of silage wrap, silage covers, and baler twine that have been accumulating for several years.

The story begins in 2018 when the Chinese Government banned imports of waste plastic. For decades, China had imported and processed about half of the world’s scrap plastic. When it abruptly stopped, it disrupted recyclers around the globe.

One that was hit particularly hard was Wastebusters, a charitable trust based in Ashburton that collected a range of farm plastics as well as other recyclables and waste from farms throughout Mid-Canterbury.

The loss of revenue from its exported plastic was enough of a setback that Wastebusters was set to shut down. Coming to the rescue were Brent and Maureen McLaren.

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The people behind the clean-up effort (from left): Kyle Woods (Southern Xpress), Neal Shaw (Plasback), Bruce McDowell (Southern Xpress), and Brent McLaren (Wastebusters)

Brent and Maureen had the contract to compost the green waste that Wastebusters collected. Rather than lose a big chunk of their income if Wastebusters were to stop trading, they took over its operation.

“We provide farmers large wooden bins so they can separate their waste,” Brent says. “When they are full, we collect the bins from the farm or they can bring them into our yard.

“Since we took over Wastebusters, we have increased the number of bins on farms by 50%. We now have about 1500 bins in circulation. Some large operations have more than 20 bins on multiple farms.”

Although the business has expanded, Brent and Maureen were not able to resume exporting farm plastic.

Brent says at one point they were in discussion with an entrepreneur who planned to set up a pyrolysis plant that would turn waste plastic into diesel. That fell through, and Wastebusters’ stockpiles grew so much that it became difficult to process some other material on the main collection site.

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Waste plastic can be a blight on New Zealand’s clean, green image

When Plasback commercial manager Neal Shaw learned of the problem, he approached Brent and Maureen to see if together they could come up with a solution. With some creative thinking and goodwill on both sides, they agreed on a way forward.

Wastebusters provides the plastic at no cost to Plasback, and in turn, Plasback covers the cost of processing it and shipping it overseas. Neither party is making a financial gain, but they are addressing a significant waste issue that could impact the local environment.

Another part of the agreement is that Wastebusters has now become Plasback’s collection contractor for Mid Canterbury. This means it collects silage wrap, silage covers, twine, and other waste plastic from farms using Plasback’s bin and liner system.

“Plasback had the capacity to take on the huge job of dealing with Wastebusters’ stockpile. We collect more than 5000 tonnes of plastic every year, and we have both local and overseas partners to recycle the product,” Neal says.

“In addition to the sheer amount of plastic Wastebusters had collected was the fact that it was in stacks of loose sheets. When farmers put their recyclable material in our plastic liners, it’s easier to handle, has less contamination, and is more presentable to our overseas clients,” Neal says.

Southern Xpress is playing a vital role in the clean-up effort. The Christchurch company runs a unique mobile baler designed to bale tyres to ship overseas for recycling. It has carried out a number of contracts for Plasback to bale farm plastic in both the South and North Islands.

Southern Xpress operations manager Kyle Woods says the company’s custom-built baler can produce bales weighing up to two tonnes.

“Because the baler is mobile, we can bale the waste material wherever it is. It’s much cheaper to transport bales than bulk waste,” Kyle says.

“Late last year, we did a trial run at Wastebusters and decided that yes, we could do the job. Brent is making it easier by using a digger to sort the plastic so that I can load it into the baler.”

About 25% through the Wastebusters job, Southern Xpress had produced 127 bales of plastic, each of which weighed about 1.8 tonnes.

Plasback is the only recycler accredited by the New Zealand Government that collects silage wrap and other plastic direct from farms. It has a network of 13 contractors who do this throughout the country.

Neal says Wastebusters’ experience is a cautionary tale for other regional bodies looking to set up recycling schemes.

“Loose bale wrap is particularly difficult to handle, which adds costs to the process. This can be mitigated if farmers make the effort to bag the product on-farm before collection.

“It’s great that more farmers now want to do the right thing with their plastic, but there are a number of risks involved in recycling. That includes fluctuating markets and the increasing cost of shipping in New Zealand and internationally.

“Under Government legislation, a product stewardship scheme for farm plastic will be in place by 2024. There are still elements in the farming community who refuse to help pay the cost of recycling and continue to burn or bury their waste.

“Ultimately, this will hurt the entire farming sector. If we do not solve the problem voluntarily, then the Government will impose a levy and farmers will cover the cost of recovery when they purchase the product.

“The problem is that the levy is likely to be two or three times what we charge to collect from farms today,” Neal says.

For further information, contact Neal Shaw on 027 438 4254 or nshaw@plasback.co.nz.

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