So what’s the issue?

Burial pits and burning piles are commonplace on many farms across New Zealand.

All manner of waste materials, both household and farm related, are included in the mix. However agricultural chemicals, animal health and dairy hygiene products present a three-fold risk if disposed of by burning or burying.

  1. Direct contact with dumped product presents immediate health risks to people and livestock.
  2. Ground seepage or residue from burning contaminates land, air and water.
  3. Burning of plastic packaging can generate unsafe emissions, including dioxins which persist in the environment and seriously impact on human health

Simply put, burning or burying these products and their packaging is no longer accepted farming practice, and is not necessary due to the nationwide availability of Agrecovery services.

A 2014 study on rural waste, commissioned by Bay of Plenty and Waikato Regional Councils, recorded 2564 tonnes of rural waste from 69 properties surveyed. The study showed an average of 37 tonnes generated per property each year, typically disposed of by burning, burying or bulk storage (known as the 3Bs).

Rural wastes in the BOP/Waikato survey and in a similar Environment Canterbury survey include scrap metal, treated timber and fence posts, plastic wraps and ties, twine, agrichemicals, containers, used oil, tyres, animal welfare wastes (syringes and vials), crop netting, glass, batteries, construction and demolition wastes, and domestic refuse.

The prevalence of these traditional methods of waste disposal for farmers is mainly due to the abundance of available land, the distance to dedicated landfills, and a former lack of alternatives. However there is clear evidence of the health risks and negative environmental impacts of this habitual behaviour, specifically in relation to waste plastics. Rural recycling opportunities have also significantly increased in the last 5-10 years, meaning farmers should now be reviewing practices involving burning or burying.

An earlier study, done in 2003 for the New Zealand Agrichemical Education Trust (NZAET), looked at five methods of disposing of farm wastes, with three of these being on-farm burial, on-farm burning and drop-off at a collection facility for recycling.

Burning

Not surprisingly, the 2003 report outlined a number of issues and risks associated with on-farm burning of waste plastics, backed up by a 2011 study done in Ontario, Canada.

Those of most note in the 2003 NZ study are the risks to health from the burning of domestic and farm wastes in conjunction with waste plastics, the burning of residual chemicals (from un-rinsed containers), plus the risks associated with ash residue and leachate from fires.

The Canadian study states that “open burning of agricultural plastics can lead to the release of many air pollutants and hazardous byproducts, including heavy metals, dioxins and furans. Dioxins and furans are a health concern even in very small quantities, being associated with endocrine disruption, heart disease, cognitive and motor disabilities, as well as being a known human carcinogen. Exposure to pollutants can occur through direct inhalation or ingestion of contaminated plants or animals.”

Burial

The HDPE and LDPE plastics used in containers and feed wrap are inert and not biodegradable, however surface photo degradation due to exposure to sunlight breaks down the plastic, particularly feed plastics, into small pieces. These can be ingested by stock and also by marine life, notably after storms or periods of high winds when buried, or discarded plastics can make their way into waterways and then to the ocean. (The enormity of the problem caused by plastic pollution in our oceans is well documented.)

In comparison to council-run landfills which manage leachate and gas build up, farm pits cause environmental problems through lack of leachate management, poor siting and generally low standards of control.

In addition, the NZAET study suggests that the use of burial as a disposal method may also lead to farmers being less vigilant about the rinsing of residues from chemical containers prior to disposal. Burying waste produces leachate when percolating water and other liquids pick up heavy metals, herbicides, pesticides or undesirable nutrients, and decomposing organic waste. This leachate can potentially affect aquatic life and/or farm stock.

As well as unsightly plastic films caught in fence lines, contractors and farmers also experience buried plastic being pulled up during ploughing, drain laying and other farm activities, causing frustration and costly delays.

Recycling

The NZAET study was clear that recycling of plastics has the least negative impact on the environment, resulting “in a net avoided burden for the air acidification, human toxicity, greenhouse effect and depletion of non renewable resources”.

Even with transportation and financial considerations taken into account, recycling rated best, burning worst, and on-farm landfills somewhere in between.

Most New Zealand manufacturers and distributors of agrichemical, animal health and dairy hygiene products in plastic containers and drums have got behind the Agrecovery programme which offers a simple solution to the traditional practices of burning and burial.

These companies recognise that the safe sustainable solutions offered by Agrecovery are available and necessary, so financially support these programmes to make them either free, or as affordable as possible, for farmers and growers.

Other service providers offer solutions for feed plastics and various other products.

Where to from here?

If you’re not already participating in a programme like Agrecovery Rural Recycling, our suggestion would be to check out what services are on offer.

Recycling with Agrecovery, a not-for-profit charitable trust, helps reduce both the environmental and health risks of doing things “the way they’ve always been done”, and is another critical step in proving farming’s clean green credentials to both domestic and international markets.

Check out our recycling and recovery programmes to see how you can improve your farm’s environmental footprint.

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