Scotland to ban the burning of waste plastic from farms

Burning farm plastics will be illegal in Scotland from 2019 after the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) vowed to end exemptions enabling the practice.

Currently, farm plastics (referring to silage wrap, crop covers, fertiliser bags and containers) are able to be incinerated in Scotland under an exemption to the environmental regulations updated in 2013. Following discussion with the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Scotland and Zero Waste Scotland, SEPA has announced today (31 August) that it will be ending this exemption for farm plastics and ‘most types of agricultural waste’ from 1 January 2019.

Scotland to ban the burning of waste plastic from farms
Wrapping hay bales in plastic is a common practice to protect them from the elements

In 2010, data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggested that across the UK, around 85,000 tonnes of waste plastic was created annually by the farming industry, much of that contaminated by soil making it more complex to recycle. However, the practice of burning plastic on-farm was banned in England and Wales in 2005, requiring farmers to use a registered waste management business to collect, decontaminate and recycle their plastic waste.

At that time, the Scottish Government allowed the burning of farm plastics to continue – something SEPA’s then-Waste Policy Officer Gary Walker was not happy with, telling the Sunday Herald: “There is clear evidence that environmental damage and harm to human health can result from the burning of plastics. We would rather see plastic being taken off farms for recycling or re-use.”

Now, an end to the exemption allowing Scottish farmers to continue burning their waste will help to push more plastic to recycling, in line with the requirement for businesses in Scotland to present their plastics separately for collection. It is hoped this will further help to boost the Scottish market for recycled plastics.

Walker, now Waste and Landfill Tax Manager at SEPA, announced the end to the exemption at a visit to RPC bpi recycled products in Dumfries, a company that recycles up to 120,000 tonnes of plastic every year, turning it into refuse sacks and Plaswood, a brand of 100 per cent recycled plastic lumber. The company has been selected as a partner in the initiative to improve the recycling of farm plastics in Scotland.

“Every day SEPA works to protect and enhance Scotland’s environment,” Walker commented at the site visit. “Ending the exemption for burning farm plastics is an important next step in stemming the plastic tide by reducing the environmental impacts of farm waste.

“Whilst many farmers have been recycling this type of waste for years, it is important that all farmers take steps now to ensure they are ready.  By recycling farmers are once more doing their bit for the environment, supporting their local community and helping ensure that plastic materials are kept in use for as long as possible by maximising the value that can be extracted from them.”

SEPA, NFU Scotland and Zero Waste Scotland have created a set of resources aimed at helping Scottish farmers sort out their plastic waste in advance of 1 January. As NFU Scotland’s Vice President, Martin Kennedy, explained: “We have been working closely with SEPA and Zero Waste Scotland on clear messages and practical measures that farmers can follow. That involves meaningful, simple guidance on what can and can’t be done; what is and what isn’t recyclable, and what the options are for farm plastics deemed non-recyclable.

“We also want to ensure the collection centre network is as comprehensive as possible so those in more remote areas have realistic options to have this material disposed of properly in the future.

“Where there are gaps in information, guidance or disposal options, we will work quickly with others to fill them with solutions.”

This news comes as part of a concerted push by the Scottish Government to reduce the impact of plastics on the environment, following the launch of a new plastics recycling partnership for Scotland, Project Beacon, in June, which aims to bring together government and reprocessors to recycle the country’s plastic waste using innovative techniques.