Survey reveals extent of waste burning on farms

The scale of change facing farm waste management practices has been hammered home with the release of a new survey of agricultural waste arisings. The Environment Agency has also published a feasibility study into take-back schemes for packaging and plastics which found that a majority of agricultural suppliers favour legislation to underpin a levy scheme.

Wastes ranging from plastics to engine oil are presently exempt from waste management law if they are produced on a farm. But the Government is facing intensifying legal pressure from the European Commission to bring "non-natural" agricultural wastes under regulatory controls, in line with the requirements of the EU waste framework Directive.

In 2002, the Environment Department set up a stakeholder forum to wrestle with some of the issues. In November, the forum helped produce an awareness-raising summary document for the farming community. "We want to encourage farmers, suppliers, waste contractors and others involved in agricultural waste to start thinking about the proposed changes," said forum chairman Sue Ellis.

The target date for applying the new controls continues to slip. A consultation paper which had been planned for September (ENDS Report 340, pp 48-49 ) is now expected in the new year. Regulations will not be laid for a further 12 weeks.

The regulations are expected to make it an offence for farmers to dump or burn wastes such as plastics, general household refuse and pesticides packaging. They will also bring the spreading of manures and burning of other wastes under regulatory oversight.

The National Farmers' Union has been pressing for "realistic and least-cost solutions". Environmental benefits will be realised when reuse and recycling schemes for packaging and other wastes are "available and economical", it says.

Some 300,000 tonnes of non-natural wastes are produced on agricultural holdings in England and Wales each year, according to the Environment Agency's survey.1 The research team visited 380 farms across Britain.

In addition, some 600,000 tonnes of scrap metal, tyres and asbestos roof sheeting are currently stored on farms with no plans for their disposal. The report recommends a campaign to encourage farmers to clear this material.

Some 41% of farmers claimed to be aware of the forthcoming legislation, but few in fact had any detailed knowledge. The survey found that 90% of farms dispose of waste using practices that will shortly become illegal, ranging from open burning to on-farm burial. Around three-quarters use the household dustbin for farm wastes.

The statistics on waste burning are particularly troubling. Some 90% of British farmers say they currently burn wastes, including 83% who burn waste in the open. Only 15% use drum incinerators and 5% other types of incinerator.

No fewer than 88% of farmers said that they burned packaging waste and 66% burn silage plastics. Just over half said they burn gloves, swabs and dressings; 21% burn waste oils; 11% scrap tyres; and 8% needles and syringes.

The survey concludes that 38% of the 200,000 holdings in Britain have tips, and 29% have active tips. Some farmers admitted that, during the foot and mouth outbreak, they took the opportunity to bury a variety of waste materials with their culled animals.

A quarter of farms in England and Wales report problems with fly-tipping. The new regulatory system will focus additional attention on this problem, because wastes become the responsibility of the landowner where no offender is identified.

The survey found that take-back of waste - one of the options for collecting farm wastes - is already occurring on a limited scale. For example, 37% of farms are returning syringes and needles to vets and 39% return scrap tyres to suppliers.

The overwhelming majority of farmers said they would participate in collection schemes for silage films, scrap metals and tyres.

However, a separate survey of the agricultural supply industry has concluded that most suppliers would want to see underpinning legislation before getting involved in a levy-based take-back scheme. This survey forms part of a take-back feasibility study commissioned by the Agency which focused on packaging and film wastes.2It found that any additional administrative and compliance burdens would be sufficient reason for most supply companies not to get involved in take-back. "The adoption of an appropriately deregulatory approach to waste management controls, including the use of licensing exemptions wherever possible, will be critical to gaining any industry involvement," the study concludes.

Just over half of supply companies said that levy-based systems would have to be underpinned by legislation to eliminate free-riders.

However, even with legislation to underpin a levy scheme, supply companies would be unlikely to want to get involved in take-back directly. Many believe that collection services would best be contracted out to waste collection firms.

The full range of options for farm waste collection are examined in another report funded through the landfill tax credits scheme.3

It concludes that collections from individual farms by waste contractors are unlikely to be commercially sustainable, except for materials such as scrap metals and other non-routine wastes.

The study also veers away from the idea of local authority collection services because of various logistical constraints. However, the option is likely to remain under consideration, not least because farmers are already using the household waste service for some of their waste management needs.

The report identifies take-back services - by vets and machinery specialists - as the best option for many hazardous wastes. Costs would be passed on to farmers as a separate item in their overall service charge. However, waste legislation could act as a barrier if service providers were required to register as waste carriers.

In the case of waste plastics and packaging, the study concluded that "milk-round" collections by waste contractors would be the most cost-effective solution.

The Government plans to consult in the new year on whether to introduce legislation to underpin a levy-based take-back service for farm packaging and plastics.

Any such initiative will build on the experience of the Farm Films Producers Group, which collapsed in 1997 after two film importers refused to pay the voluntary levy that funded collections (ENDS Reports 304, p 20  and 285, pp 41-42 ).

  • A farm plastics scheme in Gloucestershire plans to write shortly to the county's 7,000 farms to invite them to join. The scheme hopes to collect some 500 tonnes of black plastic used in storing winter feed.

    The trial was launched in the summer in a joint venture between the Environment Agency, Stroud District Council, Serviceteam, Plasmega and the Recycling Consortium. Cory Environmental is among those providing funding.

    Plasmega, based in Sharpness, is reprocessing the plastic to make items such as fence posts and pipes. It follows a feasibility study in 2000 by the Agency and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group in which Plasmega's process - which avoids the need to wash the waste film - was identified.

    The plastic is collected in a standard refuse vehicle. Farmers are charged £10 per collection.

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