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Thinking beyond recycling: AgSafe

Published: 16-08-2022

Dominique Doyle, AgSafe General Manager.

Engagement is needed at every point in the supply chain to achieve circular outcomes, says AgSafe’s Dominique Doyle. She explains how product stewardship is about more than just recycling.

With circular economy discourse heating up in recent years, some industries have found themselves searching for ways to integrate sustainable practices as policies, targets and customer expectations change.

In Australia’s agriculture sector, industry-driven stewardship programs such as AgSafe’s drumMUSTER® and ChemClear® have been laying the groundwork for circular outcomes for decades.

AgSafe was established by CropLife Australia in 1993 to focus on safety in the agricultural chemical supply chain, and quickly evolved into an industry-leading stewardship organisation.

drumMUSTER, AgSafe’s longest-running program, is approaching 25 years of operation and closing in on the momentous milestone of 40 million agricultural containers collected.

Extruded plastic from drumMUSTER drums.
AgSafe keeps track of where processed drumMUSTER plastic ends up.

Through partnerships with recyclers across the country, plastic from the collected drums is processed for reuse in everything from construction materials to wheelie bins.

Participating product manufacturers are also involved from the start, their drums clearly identifiable by ‘drumMUSTER eligible container’ logos.

Dominique Doyle, AgSafe General Manager, attributes part of the program’s success to this broad, life cycle approach to product management – and stresses the importance of approaching stewardship from many angles.

“It’s not just about the recycling,” she says. “It’s about working with everyone in the whole supply chain, from the manufacturers through to the retailers, to the farmers, to the processors who recycle the material for reuse.

“With drumMUSTER, we’ve been able to follow where the plastic has gone, and we’re very comfortable knowing that it’s getting recycled in Australia and being made into new things.”

A model for circular change

Dominique points to WestonFence in Parkes, New South Wales, as a good example of agricultural waste being repurposed for use in the farming sector. The company uses resin from drumMUSTER containers in the manufacture of posts for its specialised electric fencing system.

Shredded plastic from drumMUSTER drums.
Collected drums are processed for use in a wide range of products.

“It’s great to be able to see a product which has been on farms be collected, processed, made into something new, and put back into use on farms,” she says.

According to WestonFence’s Duncan Abbey, the whole operation came about through a combination of innovative problem solving and good fortune.

“The Weston family had a problem they needed to solve, and a commitment to solve it,” he says. “When they couldn’t find what they wanted in the marketplace, they started manufacturing it themselves for their own farm.”

Duncan says the system was not conceived with any commercial venture in mind, but the interest and market demand was there. Finding a lack of cost-effective external manufacturing options, the family purchased its own plastic extrusion line and started the WestonFence business.

As a bonus, the manufacturing material was already on their doorstep in abundance.

“It just so happened that on the very landscape we were putting our product into use, there was a waste stream we could use to manufacture it,” Duncan says. “I think it’s a good circular story, that we can take farm waste and turn it into a farm management tool.”

WestonFence used to buy recycled resin from a range of sources, but Duncan says availability, quality, consistency, and price were all out of the company’s control. He says the partnership with drumMUSTER, has helped ensure a more consistent stream of quality material.

“Quality is key because that affects your production efficiency and the quality of your product,” he says.

While pursuing recyclable, circular outcomes wasn’t the aim from the start, Duncan notes it has become a point of difference for their product.

“For some larger farms, sustainability and total carbon footprint are all things that they’re now considering,” he says. “And we can assure them that our product is both recycled and recyclable.

A WestonFence post.
WestonFence posts are fully recyclable once they reach their end-of-life.

“We’ve taken something that’s got a one-year shelf life and turned it into something with a 30-year life cycle – and counting. And if you want to pull your fence down 30 years from now, you can chop it up and make something else out of it.”

Having seen the potential of a circular outcome first-hand, Duncan would now like to see more effort and action put into recycling across the country.

While expanding Australia’s capacity to recycle is important, he says increasing the demand for recycled products is needed to drive real change.

“If a council is investing in recycling initiatives but then installing steel or wooden park benches, they’re not practising what they preach,” he says.

The future of stewardship

CropLife Australia has been looking for new ways to support the agriculture sector through circular solutions – especially ahead of Australia’s 2025 National Packaging Targets.

Enter the organisation’s latest stewardship program: bagMUSTER®. Developed in partnership with the Australian Seed Federation, the industry-led not-for-profit program is targeting a solution for agricultural bags.

bagMUSTER, currently in preparation for the rollout of its pilot stage, builds on the established infrastructure that supports drumMUSTER and ChemClear. The program will process collected bags locally and as such, also support the development of new Australian recycling technologies.

“I’m very excited about the initiative,” Dominique says. “I think it will be another successful all-of-industry program that will provide a much-needed solution for farmers.”

“What’s worked for drumMUSTER will work for bagMUSTER too. The program will engage with the manufacturers of the bags, and if the bags are manufactured overseas, engage with the importers too.

“The key is to go as high up the supply chain as possible. You need to find where the products originate from and engage at that level.”

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