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Why Alberta’s farmers are crying out for a plastics recycling program

Plastics are commonly used on Alberta’s farms, for instance in the form of baler twine, bale wrap, silage tarps, and feed bags. But how to responsibly dispose of them is an ongoing problem as their use increases.

To date, much of this material cannot be recycled because it cannot be burned or buried, leaving farmers with the problem of what they should do with it.

Working group addresses issue of plastics recycling

In December 2016, a working group was formed to find solutions to the problem of agricultural plastics recycling. The Agricultural Plastics Recycling Group consists of representatives from the following organizations:

Because the provincial government has not provided direction on a policy for Extended Producer Responsibility for agricultural plastics, the group decided at its December meeting to start by bringing stakeholders together on the topic. From January to June 2017, the group met with more than half a dozen producer groups (representing dairy, beef, and crop farmers, among others) to discuss the topics and issues of ag plastics waste and recycling.

One of the group’s conclusions was the need for a provincial stewardship program to provide a responsible, sustainable solution for agricultural plastic recycling. This need was also identified by Alberta’s Agricultural Service Board. It had passed a resolution in 2016, that the Ministry of Environment and Parks and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (Research) should develop and implement an agricultural plastics recycling program modelled after the pilot program in Saskatchewan.

Drafting a policy framework

The Agricultural Plastics Recycling Association decided at a meeting in June 2017 that its next step would be to host a half-day meeting with all interested stakeholders to work on a draft policy framework to present to the provincial government. This meeting took place in August 2017. Alberta Environment and Parks provided a provincial update while discussion points included program examples from other jurisdictions, and the technical realities of manufacturing agricultural plastics.

Producer groups were given an opportunity to provide feedback on what they need from a plastics recycling program. ACFA noted there are a host of stewardship programs for other materials that could inform the agriculture community about how to deal with handling and recycling plastics. While most of these programs are user-pay, ACFA pointed out that there needs to be some involvement and commitment from suppliers in any program. This may be in the form of providing infrastructure such as plastic rollers and bins, to helping with initial start-up costs or awareness advertising.

How would a provincially regulated stewardship program affect Alberta producers?

A provincially regulated recycling program would ensure that producers in all agricultural-intensive regions of the province would have access to recycling programs. It’s understood that there will likely be an Environmental Handling Fee applied to agricultural plastics purchases to fund the recycling program, but this is a problem which requires an affordable, responsible and sustainable solution.

Environmental stewardship is one of the four primary pillars on which ACFA focuses its activities. You can read more about this on our Environment Pillar page.

Emissions research part 2: helping cattle feeders reduce their impact on the environment, and on their neighbours

Last week on this blog we talked about a research project that is helping us understand the greenhouse gas emissions from feedlots. We explained why the project was needed and what it studied.

This week we continue our conversation with Dr. Sean McGinn of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to find out how the study will help Canada’s cattle feeders minimize their impact on the environment.

Early results

The study showed that 14 per cent of the ammonia emitted at feedlots is redeposited in the immediate vicinity of the feedlot, and reemitted into the atmosphere.  “That 14 per cent is a large amount considering a typical feedlot emits one to two tonnes of ammonia per day,” said Sean. However, it is worth noting that the amount of ammonia in the soil decreased by 50 per cent over a distance of just 200 metres.

Sean explained that the implications of this depositing and reemitting of ammonia is a mixed bag of good, bad and indifferent:

    • Improved crop production – if ammonia falls in soils that are low in nitrogen it can actually reduce the need for fertilizer and increase crop production.
    • Damage to ecosystems – when ammonia is deposited to a natural ecological surface – where plants have adapted to a specific nitrogen content in the soil – the loading of these ecosystems with ammonia can disrupt the plant composition.
    • No effect on feedlot odours – ammonia concentrations are often thought to contribute to feedlot odour, but the concentrations, even close to the feedlot, are well below the detection threshold concentration (as documented by atmospheric health studies) – feedlot odour is not related to ammonia release.
    • Neutralizing of atmospheric acids – when ammonia is emitted into the atmosphere, it can be transported long distances where it has a role in neutralizing atmospheric acids.
    • Potential for exacerbating respiratory problems – where the acids are in high concentration (associated with cities) and where animal agriculture is established, there is an accumulation of fine aerosols that causes respiratory problems for people living in the area. This can be seen in the Fraser Valley of B.C.

Moving forward

Feedlot operators are serious about operating sustainably and responsibly. With new measurement tools in place, it means our industry is better placed to minimize its effects on the environment, and also to help inform public policy.

As Dr. Karen Koenig, another researcher at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, explains in her article, ‘New methane and ammonia mitigation options in the pipeline’, there are immediate changes feedlot operators can make to reduce the ammonia emissions from their operations:

    • The amount of ammonia emitted from manure can be reduced by changing the amount of crude protein fed to cattle.
    • There are also new forages available that contain substances known to bind nitrogen in manure. “In research we look for win-win results that not only benefit the environment, but also increase efficiencies,” Sean noted. “The retention of valuable nitrogen in manure can result in a savings of thousands of dollars each day in fertilizer costs, while helping reduce atmospheric dispersion.”

To learn more about the research project, check out part one of this series, and be sure to read this earlier blog post, ‘What do you know about cows and GHG emissions?’.

Can industry and consumers find common ground on beef?

Cattle producers and feedlot operators work hard to ensure that the industry operates in a responsible, sustainable way, but many Canadians know little about the beef that’s on their plates. It’s not because they don’t want to know — they have questions about things like how cattle are raised, how the industry contributes to Canada’s GHG emissions and the use of hormones.

These are important questions — ones the beef industry is trying to better answer. Consumers and industry share common concerns, but we don’t always speak the same language. We’re working to change that through events like this year’s Alberta Beef Industry Conference.

The annual conference, which takes place February 15 to 17, is hosted jointly by the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association, Alberta Beef Producers, Alberta Livestock Dealers and Order Buyers Association, Alberta Auction Markets Association, and Western Stock Growers Association. This year’s workshops and sessions have been planned to help  producers understand the concerns and perspectives of their consumers.

How cattle producers and consumers can reach an understanding

The beef industry requires a market for its products, and consumers want to make informed decisions about what they feed their families. Is it possible to satisfy both parties? Conference participants will explore this pivotal question, focusing on:

  • Consumer perceptions of the beef industry
  • How to effectively communicate with consumers
  • Branding and storytelling
  • Economic and market outlooks

By gaining a greater understanding of the local and global marketplace, and the attitudes and beliefs of consumers, cattle producers will be better equipped to communicate their stories and provide helpful information. That way, the industry can start to educate Canadians about its high standards of animal care, safety and sustainability and be seen globally as a socially responsible supplier of premium beef.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be interviewing some of the conference speakers to gain their perspectives on this key topic. Stay tuned for next week, when we will speak with Doug Lacombe, of Communicatto, about changing consumer tastes and trends.

Beef and hormones: should Canadians be concerned?

These days we hear a lot in the media about the use of hormones in food production. In fact, ‘hormone-free’ has become a common advertising theme. This week on this blog, we’re taking a look at why food producers use hormones, and whether Canadians have any cause for concern. Read more

What do you know about cows and GHG emissions?

You may have heard people say that cattle contribute to global warming due to their gassy digestive process — but what does that actually mean?

Read more

McDonald’s verified sustainable beef – what does that mean for Canadians?

Sustainability is something of a watchword these days, but when it comes to beef, what does it actually mean?

That’s a question McDonald’s asked themselves when they made a commitment to source all their food and packaging from sustainable sources. Read more

The beef industry and sustainability: how are we doing and where could we improve?

In previous posts on the blog we’ve talked about the contribution the beef industry makes to Canada’s economy; about beef exports, young people in agriculture and more. These are all subjects that matter to Canadians.

The central issue of all these topics is ‘sustainability’ – our ability to operate profitably and for the long-term, without being harmful to people or the environment. That poses some big questions for us as an industry. How are we performing when it comes to our industry members, our animals, our environment and our consumers?

That’s why, in 2014, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB) commissioned the National Beef Sustainability Assessment (NBSA) and Strategy. The two-year study assessed the environmental, social and economic performance of the Canadian beef industry, right from ‘farm to fork’, and identified areas where we could improve.

According to Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, chair of the CRSB, “we have created a sustainability benchmark to enable us to start measuring, and to be able to tangibly see, what we’re doing well and where we need to improve. We now have a national report that’s been measured coast to coast and encompasses all the components to the sustainment of the entire beef industry.”

The most inclusive model of its kind

“We created completely new models, for instance for biodiversity and carbon sequestration,” said Cherie. “It is the first, and most inclusive of its kind worldwide, and is now an internationally recognized model.”

A summary of the methodologies and results can be found in the newly released assessment and strategy report (PDF). In this post we’re going to take a look at some of the areas where room for improvement has been identified, and where goals have been set.

Environmental assessment

Alberta cowsFrom ranching right through to feeding or processing, our industry uses water, land and feed; our operations consume resources and release substances into the air and water. Cattle also release methane into the air as food ferments in their rumen, or stomach.

On the other hand, the beef industry also provides many benefits, such as sequestering carbon in the soil in the form of manure, providing natural habitat for biodiversity and maintaining wetlands on the landscape.

The study examined the environmental performance of the Canadian beef industry in the following areas:

  • Climate change
  • Fossil fuel depletion
  • Air
  • Land use
  • Biodiversity
  • Water
  • Meat waste

Some of the main goals for our industry identified by the study are:

  • Reduce the greenhouse gas footprint for every kilogram of Canadian beef produced. Some of the ways this is being done are through optimized diets, manure management, increased carbon sequestration and genetics.
  • Enhance biodiversity on lands managed by beef producers. A need was identified for greater awareness of, and research into, the relationship between beef production, habitats and biodiversity.
  • Reduce the effects that the beef industry has on rivers and watersheds. Beef producers continue to encourage the completion of the National Wetland Inventory, and support knowledge and innovation in areas such as water use efficiencies, and the health of our rivers and waterways.
  • Reduce meat waste. Efficiencies at the processing stage, and improved packaging were both identified as areas where improvements could potentially be made.

Social assessment

rider herds cattle in feedlotThe social part of the study covered three main areas:

  • Working conditions
  • Animal health
  • Antimicrobials

The following goals were recommended:

  • Continue to promote farm safety, as well as a culture of diversity, inclusion and transparency.
  • Promote excellence in animal care, through the beef code of practice, including in such practices as transportation, pain control and branding.
  • Support and further develop best practices regarding antimicrobial use. This includes proper use in order to avoid resistances, as well as public education on the importance of responsible use of microbials for healthy animals.

Economic assessment

Producer viability and consumer resilience were the main areas of focus for the economic portion of the study. The two main goals that came from this were:

  • Increase the financial viability of beef producers in Canada with knowledge, efficiency and innovation.
  • Increase demand for beef within Canada by more effectively communicating the sustainability performance of the industry.

Moving forward

Cherie explained that the assessment will be an ongoing process, with updated surveys so that progress can be monitored.

This is a living document. It’s just a snapshot, and it will change for the next go round

“When you take a look at all the components of producing a pound of beef,” Cherie continued, “it’s given us the ability to really focus on the individual stages and see exactly how we can improve. It gives operators goals to focus on that are specific to their own part of the beef chain.”

If you would like more detail on the results of the assessment, the goals or the action items that will help us to achieve those goals, check out the National Beef Sustainability Assessment and Strategy Summary Report (PDF).