Looming environmental regulations and new State laws already in place are building pressure on the Australian fertiliser industry to effectively manage waste and recyclable packaging.

Used fertiliser packaging, particularly large bulk bags predominantly used by the horticulture sector, has largely been exported to Asia for recycling, found its way into landfill or been disposed of inappropriately.

However, by mid-2021 and in-line with international agreements, exports of waste and recyclable plastics will no longer be permitted from Australia. With new laws in several States, incorrect disposable deemed to be harming the environment also can result in massive fines and/or imprisonment.

It has meant fertiliser manufacturers need to look at systems for future regulatory compliance, as well as protecting their brand and maintaining a strong commitment to the environment and their corporate and social responsibilities, while producers, or users, are under obligations to ensure correct disposal.

The developments have increased the spotlight on Farm Waste Recovery (FWR), which has been collecting large bulk bags from properties for some major manufacturers signed up to its industry stewardship program.

The FWR service has collected more than 3000 tonnes of plastic since commencing four years ago and will soon come under the new banner, Big Bag Recovery, covering all industries. Recovery is expected to jump dramatically to around 48,000t annually, commensurate with the volume of bags imported into Australia. FWR will continue to collect unbranded waste plastics.

The business has mainly exported the bags to Asia and has plans to build a network of regional processing facilities to establish a full circle recycle industry across the country under its parent, Industry Waste Recovery. The new recycle industry would create hundreds of regional jobs and refine the waste back to a resin before manufacturing various new plastic products.

“The resin can be used to manufacture products like evaporation balls to go on water storages for seven to 10 years before being harvested, refined back to a resin and starting again. This is true recycling,’’ said Stephen Richards of FWR.

“As technology increases, it can be used to manufacture more sophisticated products like internal walls used in housing.

“Ultimately, it is about preventing the need for manufacturing new plastic.’’

The bags also have been recycled into outdoor furniture, including park benches. About 60 bulk bags, converting to 200 kilograms of plastic, can be recycled into a park bench.

FWR has recently been collecting bags in the almond industry in Victoria’s Sunraysia region with manufacturers including Haifa Australia, one of the first companies to sign up to its stewardship program and which has been a major advocate with other suppliers and producers to help ensure the industry’s future environmental sustainability.

Haifa is one of the major suppliers of water soluble nutrients to the horticulture industry. It has had strong success in Australia with its Multi-K potassium nitrate fertiliser, Poly-Feed nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium formulas, and Multicote controlled release nutrition products. It also recently launched several innovative, low sodium fertilisers for high quality horticulture and greenhouse systems.

The company has a strong brand in the horticulture, vegetable and nursery industries, distributing in all States through major suppliers as well as independent retailers.

“Haifa has been one of the leading organisations behind the stewardship program. It has been actively promoting it in the different industry segments and particularly the almond industry,’’ Stephen said.

“Trevor Dennis (the company’s Managing Director) has been very proactive and encouraging competitor suppliers to join because he’s cognisant of his industry being seen in a positive light.

“The program is nationally run and we have been growing generically as we go into different industries, but not all companies are on-board. The significant leaders in industries have been the early adopters, which has then encouraged some of the smaller suppliers to also come on-board. For others, the risk is around regulatory compliance and social damage to brands, reputation and market share due to not being seen as a good corporate citizen.

“For growers, the risk is linked to the fact there is nowhere to dispose of the bags, so it has been pushed back onto the brand owners.’’

He said for industries like the almond industry in Victoria and wider region, where FWR collects bags seasonally from late spring, through December and again post-harvest in March, Haifa had played a significant role.

“Haifa has been really important for us and their customers because they have taken the lead in industries like almonds in this region.’’

“They have been driving the outcomes for larger growers and smaller growers, so they understand what their responsibilities are. This has been able to encourage other competitor companies to join – and they probably wouldn’t have joined if Haifa and Trevor Dennis hadn’t taken the lead.’’

Stephen said the almond industry was progressive, with most major producers supporting the program.

“The industry leaders are very supportive, which ultimately paves the way for all participants,’’ he said.

“The big benefits to growers are having an outlet for plastic recycling, reducing the risk of fines or penalties and maintaining their image.

“For future exports from our almond industry, it is critical for the marketability of the product to know that on-farm plastics are being recycled.’’

Neale Bennett, Chair of the Almond Board of Australia (ABA), said the recycling program was an initiative the ABA Board immediately supported, as it saved on landfill and was a more efficient use of resources.

“It makes a lot of sense to reuse materials through recycling than to use raw materials that will be discarded after one use,’’ Neale said.

He said the Australian almond industry was committed to sustainable farming practices, also including efficient water use by applying the best technology to schedule irrigations.

Stephen said FWR recently collected bulk bags from Olam almond orchards in the Sunraysia region, with all fertiliser suppliers to the properties now part of the stewardship program.

“Most corporate companies in the almond growing industry have got on the front foot to protect their brand and reputation with all of their stakeholders, including investors. It helps uphold their social obligations, which is good for their brand, the environment, as well as for work health and safety on the farms.’’

Gideon van Zyl is the Orchard Manager on Olam’s ‘Campbell’ property in the Kenley area of the Sunraysia. The Campbell property produces almonds from 12-year-old and eight-year-old trees set over about 800 hectares. The almonds are processed at the company’s Carwarp facility near Mildura.

Gideon said Olam maintained a strong focus on its environmental footprint. While changes to regulatory requirements were leading to improvements in Olam’s operations, the process for bulk bag disposal has long been considered an area in which to further advance its practices.

He said the ‘Campbell’ team mixed up to 58 bags per week and this season was the first collection to be arranged with FWR.

“As we use FWR more, we will streamline things. The next collection will be after harvest. It will be good to get the bags off the farm on a regular basis. It’s better to have them disposed this way’’.

Gideon said it was great that Olam’s suppliers also were helping to lead the push across the industry.

“It’s good to see the company is committed to supporting the industry and the environment – it’s really about looking after things for the next generation.’’

He said with the sheer size of operations today, one of the best ways to handle waste was recycling with programs like this.