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Why plastics used on farms is worth talking about

Fiona Tovey, Project Manager in the EA's Plastics & Sustainability Team, explains how farmers can help to tackle plastic pollution and illegal waste exports

Since Blue Planet II there has been increasing awareness of the amount of plastic we use and it littering our land, rivers and seas, but I doubt many people have thought about the plastics that are used on farms being illegally exported to countries all over the world. I certainly hadn’t until I joined the Environment Agency’s newly established Plastics and Sustainability team in 2018, inspiring positive behaviour change within the agricultural sector.

Whilst the percentage of plastic waste is small compared with household and other business waste, it matters because farms are generally in rural locations and close to watercourses. With 71% of land in the UK dedicated to agriculture, and reports to the Environment Agency of poor compliance, illegal burning and burying of waste, it is clear to us, that agricultural plastics are a concern. The plastics that are used are often difficult to recycle because of the different types (everything from hard containers to soft stretchy films) and challenging levels of contamination from things like soil to hazardous chemicals.

My colleagues in our Illegal Waste Exports team have noticed a rise in the amount of contaminated agricultural plastic waste such as silage wrap being illegally exported from England. Unless it is free from contamination, export of these waste types requires permission from us and overseas authorities. Unfortunately some try to export contaminated waste without permission which is illegal. Those found responsible can receive tough penalties such as an unlimited fine and/or a two year prison sentence.

Fiona Tovey, Project Manager at the Plastics & Sustainability Team

I know the majority of farmers care deeply about the environment and want to do the right thing. That is why colleagues right across the EA are working together to help facilitate new habits and strengthen existing ones by working with, and providing tools for, the agricultural sector including:

  • Advising farmers and agricultural businesses of the need to fulfil duty of care requirements to ensure their waste is going to the right place.
  • Working with farm assurance schemes in reviewing standards.
  • Sharing our evidence of environmental impacts from agricultural plastics with the sector.
  • Running workshops for farm advisors in other organisations such as The Rivers Trust and Wildlife Trusts, as well as for the Environment Agency’s own Officers.
  • Inspiring the next generation to reduce, reuse and implement good waste management practices. We have created teaching packs for agricultural colleges and are working with the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs to design competitions and debates.
  • Developing clear messaging in a Key Actions for Farmers document focussing on resource efficiency and waste to help farmers meet regulatory requirements. It includes links to tools that will help farmers, for example, the EA public register to check a waste carrier is registered:
  • Working with Westcountry Rivers Trust to create a 2 page advice sheet specifically on good waste management for agricultural plastics

We have been overwhelmed with the positive responses from people wanting to work with us on this subject. From embedding messages within their own guidance to writing case studies about poor waste management to raise awareness of the issues and good management stories to inspire others to do the right thing.  It is fantastic to see so many people coming together to protect our natural world.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that the waste we produce is managed responsibly. Whilst the challenges are wide ranging, we all have a duty to make plastic pollution a thing of the past.

What can you do to reduce, reuse or recycle the plastics that you use?

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  1. Comment by Julian posted on

    Are there any schemes to recycle and reuse plastics like ?

    • Replies to Julian>

      Comment by Fiona Tovey posted on

      Hello Julian

      Thank you for leaving a comment and link to action aid.

      There are recycling schemes for farm plastics. For example, FWAG South West run a scheme where farmers can bring their plastics to a drop off point at certain times in the year:

      If you search online using 'recycling farm plastics' there are a list of other options for the collection of farm plastics.

      If kept clean, dry and secure farm plastics can be repurposed into cones, refuse sacks, picnic benches, construction membrane but we do need to see an increase in sustainable markets for the recycled pellets to be used more widely.

      I hope this helps.

      • Replies to Fiona Tovey>

        Comment by julian posted on

        Thank you Fiona for the information and link! I will get in touch with them!

  2. Comment by Julian posted on

    Hi, are there any schemes for large scale recycling on farms such as ?

  3. Comment by Yuli Somme posted on

    Hello Fiona,
    I have become aware of two farms on Dartmoor who seem to be in the business for burning caravans on their farms, along with tyres and other farm plastics.
    Despite one of them being reported several times, nothing has happened to stop him.
    Legislation seems to be inadequate or ungovernable.
    Is there anything happening to prevent this?

    • Replies to Yuli Somme>

      Comment by Fiona Tovey posted on

      Hi Julie
      Apologies for the delay in replying. Activities like this should be reported to the EA on 0800 80 70 60 with as much detail as possible, including photos, and ask for feedback.
      There are lots of activities taking place across the EA to prevent illegal disposal of waste. In the blog above there are links to information documents that help people do the right thing - such as ensuring your waste collector is registered with the EA. Our enforcement teams work closely with partner organisations, such as the police, to gather intelligence and prevent these types of activities.
      If you did report the incidents to the EA hotline please call the number again and request an update.
      Kind regards

  4. Comment by Yuli Somme posted on

    Hello Fiona,
    Thank you for your response.
    Over the last few years I have reported 2 incidents with photos, dates etc.
    The system for reporting is ineffectual, the EA seem overstretched and unwilling to take any effective action, other than knocking on the door of the perpetrated and saying "We hear you had a bonfire...."!
    I will keep trying, but I should not be put in a situation of a vigilante. The authorities should have strength in legislation and informed officers to deal with this huge problem on some farms.
    Kind regards,
    Yuli Somme

  5. Comment by Tracey Hills posted on

    Hi, our local farm has lots of waste plastics and silage rap, we’ve watched it build and spread around the fields for 4 years now. It broken up and ended in bushes, the stream and river and it’s now being ploughed back into the fields. There is now small bits of plastic everywhere. How do we report this? And how does it get stopped. Surly this is wrong and very harmful to our rivers and wildlife as well as now entering our food chain.

  6. Comment by Rose Lovett posted on

    Hello Fiona,

    Is there an altnerative to the extensive use of clear plastic bags to collect and destory ragwort on farmland estates? I have witnessed huge stacks of such bags; addressing one environmental issue, that of a dangerous invasive species, by creating another, mountainsof plastic waste, seems plainly wrong.


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