Disposal of hazardous farm wastes

July 2007
Farmers are generally not aware of the dangers to people and the environment of the wastes generated on farm. Farm dumps are often still used for household and farm plastic containers, cans, syringes, leftover pesticides and herbicides etc etc. These end up contaminating ground water or being carried by flood waters into streams and rivers. And all this despite waste collection services now being provided at the gate throughout the Waikato.

The good news is that awareness is growing and many industry groups are working with district councils to set up collection and recycling services in farming districts.

Graham McBride has been involved with farm waste disposal for several decades. In 1991 he organised the worlds first agricultural chemical retrieval pilot in part of the Waikato, and the following year the whole region was covered.

We went to Environment Waikato and got funding on the basis that it was a community issue because if DDT was leaking into the groundwater someone would be drinking it somewhere, says Graham.

We did the whole region in 1992 and collected over 60 tonnes of intractable waste, and there were some horror stories. We even ended up with the bomb squad having to deal with gelignite and unexploded ordnances. We also did an urban survey and the scale of the problem was surprising there as well.

Today, the Ministry for the Environment has taken over responsibility for hazardous wastes. Local government does the collections and central government sends the nasties to France to be incinerated. Most regions have now had at least one agricultural chemical retrieval, only last year 12 tonnes of DDT super was recovered in one area, but there is still a considerable backlog of chemicals and wastes needing safe disposal.

The legacy of dumpsites for very persistent chemicals is of national concern and is often put in the too-hard basket. In the Waikato alone there are said to be 7000 old sheep dip sites. Many have been forgotten and few have been remediated because of the high cost about $100,000 per site and the lack of suitable technology. About the only thing that can be done is to fence them off and plant trees.

In the past, farmers had nowhere to take rubbish and so most was dumped over banks, into streams or into holes in the ground. The result was, and still is, contamination of waterways and groundwater. However, in recent times many councils have offered roadside collections. In the Waikato District, weekly rubbish and recyclables collections are now available, along with an annual collection of large inorganic items.

This is a great step in the right direction, says Graham, but many farmers dont use these services.

I know of a wealthy farmer who still puts all his rubbish over the bank into a wetland. Every time there is a flood in the Waipa catchment it washes away a lot of that stuff, and plastic milk bottles and chemical containers and drums float off down the river, says Graham.

There is still the problem of hazardous wastes, and there is a big disincentive to farmers to loading up this dirty stuff onto a trailer and spending several hours going to the nearest transfer station to dispose of it. Far easier to back the trailer up to the nearest cliff.

Graham has not dumped any waste materials on his farm for more than a decade, but there is a cost to his acting responsibly.

I have a separate item in my farm accounts called farm waste disposal, and a lot of my mates think I'm mad because they say that a box of matches will solve my problem, he says.

If I take a trailer-load into town it will cost the $90 to get rid of it at the transfer station, and it is a dirty job so unless I can find somewhere to wash and change I cant combine it with a trip to see the bank manager or accountant.

Despite the hassles he believes it is well worthwhile to take care with hazardous wastes and stop them getting into the environment. Gradually, some industries are becoming more responsible and providing disposal options:

Scrap metals and car batteries attract a small payment from dealers

Transfer stations will generally accept containers of hazardous chemicals and other noxious wastes for special disposal

Resene has a product return system and will accept back old paints and solvents

A trust, the Agrecovery Foundation, has been set up with chemical and farming industry and local government support, for the collection and disposal of 5 and 20 litre plastic ag. Chemical containers. This programme will be launched in Nelson on 19th April, and rolled out at over 50 collection points across NZ. The intention is that the plastics will be reprocessed into underground pipes and cable cover. Other wastes may be added to the collection list in time.

AgPac Ltd has trialed silage wrap recovery in Taranaki, and has found an end user for the material. The company hopes to have wrap collections in place in major dairying areas this winter.

The bottom line is that dumping rubbish of any sort on farm is no longer sustainable, and there are long term consequences that affect markets, the environment and even the ability to farm and sell contaminated land. Safe disposal is the only responsible option.

The good news is that safe disposal is becoming easier for farmers as industry groups and district councils offer more possibilities for collection and recycling.