Beating the stewardship drum: Agsafe

Beating the stewardship drum: Agsafe

As drumMUSTER celebrates its 35 millionth container return, Dominique Doyle, Agsafe General Manager, outlines Agsafe’s multipronged approach to safety and stewardship.

While the discourse around single-use plastics often conjures up images of empty drink bottles and discarded shopping bags, in the bush, resource recovery-minded farmers face an additional challenge.

Namely: what to do with empty agricultural and veterinary (agvet) chemical containers.

drumMUSTER, a product stewardship program operated by Agsafe, has been working to address the problem for over 20 years – recycling upwards of 40,000 tonnes of agricultural plastic waste that would otherwise have been sent to landfill, buried or burned on farms.

According to the 2017-18 Australian Plastics Recycling Survey, only seven per cent of agricultural sector plastics are recovered.

Of that seven per cent, drumMUSTER is responsible for 3.5 per cent, meaning approximately half of all agricultural plastics recycled in Australia is done so through the program.

In March this year, drumMUSTER, saw its 35 millionth agvet chemical container collected. The container was delivered to the Renmark Refuse Depot in Renmark, South Australia, marking an important milestone for one of Australia’s oldest product stewardship schemes.

Remark Council has been working with Agsafe since 2000, recycling over 163,000 drums.

According to Dominique Doyle, Agsafe General Manager, 349 regional and rural councils across Australia operate drumMUSTER collections, at over 800 sites.

Funded through an ACCC authorised levy, drumMUSTER provides Australian agvet chemical users with a recycling pathway for eligible empty agvet chemical containers.

The program collected its first agvet chemical container in Gunnedah, NSW in 1999.

The Trustee for the levy program is AgStewardship Australia.

The levy is imposed at the point of sale, thereby coming into effect as soon as the container enters the supply chain.

“Manufacturers of the agvet chemicals voluntarily sign up to the levy program. The industry is leading the way in stewardship” Doyle says.

She explains that AgStewardship Australia is a trustee organisation.

“This works as an assurance to farmers that the funds are being held appropriately and only used for the drumMUSTER and ChemClear stewardship programs,” Doyle says.

SAFETY AND STEWARDSHIP

Agsafe was formed in 1993 as an industry-led non-profit organisation. The purpose: to ensure safe supply, use and disposal of agvet chemicals and containers across the supply chain.

“I’ve served as Agsafe General Manager for just over two years, having previously worked with CropLife Australia,” Doyle says.

As Agsafe operates a number of programs including training, premise consulting, drumMUSTER and its sister program ChemClear, Doyle’s role involves ensuring all those programs work effectively.

What makes Agsafe unique, she adds, is that the organisation doesn’t look at product stewardship in isolation.

“A lot of the discussion of stewardship in the waste sector talks about packaging recycling, which means that when people are thinking about stewardship, they are generally thinking about packaging and recycling issues,” she says.

“Agsafe is unique because we are looking at those issues, but also believe that safety issues are key and can’t be considered in isolation from each other.

“We’re not just focusing on the packaging of the materials, but also ensuring safety along the whole supply chain,” Doyle explains.

As part of its commitment to addressing safety and stewardship holistically, Agsafe operate a range of agvet reseller training programs designed to ensure best practice adherence.

Agsafe training programs are recommended for people working in the agvet chemical supply chain.

This includes sales representatives, agronomists and warehouse managers.

Doyle says Agsafe training provides participants with the knowledge to safely and legally transport, handle and store chemicals in their state or territory.

“Chemical manufacturers wanted to ensure that retailers and anyone along the distribution supply chain understands that many of the chemicals are dangerous goods and need to be handled appropriately,” she says.

While the transport and use of the products is federally regulated by the APVMA, Doyle says it’s equally critical to ensure that state regulations are understood across the entire supply chain.

Roughly 1400 retail premises are engaged in the program.

“We train their workforce, which is around 6000 people every year,” Doyle says.

“We also work with operators that warehouse chemicals, ensuring they understand that they need to segregate incompatible chemicals.

“You can’t have an alkaloid and an acid chemical stored together, for instance, as it could end up in something as serious as an explosion.

“This is why the chemical manufacturers industry set up Agsafe, to deliver these programs and minimise any critical incidents along the way.”

COLLECTING CONTAINERS

While Agsafe training addresses chemicals pre-use, drumMUSTER is responsible for the collection and recycling of agvet chemical containers post-use.

The drumMUSTER logo and program is highly recognisable in the bush, Doyle says, highlighting a legacy that stems from the programs 1999 establishment.

She adds that when drumMUSTER was first developed, marketing was primarily geared towards engagement.

“We work hard to engage farmers to use the program, and in every state and territory have regional consultants that attend field days and engage with communities and councils to ensure maximum return back into the drumMUSTER program.”

drumMUSTER’s regional consultants are key to the program’s success Doyle says. She adds that because the consultants are locals, they understand the localised needs of farmers in their region.

“What’s happening in Central Queensland won’t be the same as what’s happening in South West WA,” she explains.

drumMUSTER operates over 800 collection sites around Australia, with the majority being located in local council compounds and waste transfer stations.

“It’s important to engage with councils on an executive level, but also at the ground level in the waste transfer stations,” Doyle says.

“We also work with over 110 community organisations, paying them a piece rate for inspecting the drums before they enter the program.

“This allows them to fund community programs such as sporting groups, school activities and Lions clubs.”

Containers must be triple rinsed to ensure no residue is left in the drums, with containers that don’t meet drumMUSTER cleanliness standards rejected.

“We do this to minimise risk for our processors, their employees and the entire supply chain,” Doyle says.

Eligible containers feature the recognisable drumMUSTER logo, she adds, which acts as an assurance to farmers that the container can be recycled at the point of purchase.

Once drums are collected, certified processors pick up the material from an Agsafe compound, with most containers shredded, granulated or heat extruded back to a resin that is suitable to enter the recycling stream.   

“After the containers are collected the processor retains ownership of the plastic, so it’s a unique model in that way,” Doyle says.

PROCESSING PLASTIC

Weston Fence is an Agsafe accredited processor that uses resin from recycled drumMUSTER containers to manufacture fence posts.

Operations Manager Duncan Abbey says the idea came out of necessity, with the family farming business wanting a strong product to manage its livestock.

“We’ve been a registered company for 20 years and have always used a proponent of recycled HPE in our posts. Then, about five years ago, we were frustrated with the inconsistency of the product we were getting and searched for a solution,” he says.

Weston Fence came across a supplier that was using a blend of drumMUSTER drums, and after trailing the product, were happy with the consistency, availability and durability of the posts they were able to produce.

Abbey adds that there is currently more than 20,000 kilometres of Weston Fence across Australian.

“We’re taking a product that has a shelf life of one year when it contains chemicals. It then becomes waste, and we’re able to turn it into something that will last 20 to 25 years as a fence post, which can then be recycled again.”

Andrew Smith of Astron Sustainability is another drumMUSTER processor. He highlights that Astron, Pact Group’s Sustainability Service Division, has been an active participant in the program for over 15 years.

“As a both a manufacturer in the agrichemical supply chain and also the largest recycler of post-industrial resin in the Southern Hemisphere, we considered this a very positive product stewardship program. And therefore, a natural fit for our Sustainability Services Division,” Smith says.

While drumMUSTER facilitates recovery options for empty containers, the dilemma of leftover chemicals is similarly significant to the agricultural industry.

Given the safety imperatives of proper chemical disposal, Agsafe developed drumMUSTER’s sister program ChemClear in 2003, using funds from the drumMUSTER levy.

ChemClear operates as a collection and disposal service for obsolete chemicals from farmers and the wider community.

Farmers and other agricultural industry professionals register their waste with the program and relinquish chemicals for safe removal.

Once pre-registered chemicals reach critical mass in an area, Agsafe arrange a “milk run” collection service.

“Our contractor has a biochemist on hand, and they receive and appropriately store the chemicals after eligibility has been confirmed,” Doyle says.

“All the staff are trained to ensure safety and segregation when doing these runs. Plus, we use a single contractor for the whole of Australia, which makes the program much easier to run and manage.”

One of the challenges for ChemClear, Doyle says, is that while farmers carry many drumMUSTER eligible products, they also possess a lot of other chemicals.

“Some of them may be legacy chemicals from changes in farming practices or generational changes, and some of the products may have been sitting on the farm for decades,” she says.

Group one chemicals, including those housed in their original container with a readable label and drumMUSTER logo, are eligible for free collection. Group two chemicals, such as those no longer registered, unlabelled or expired, have a variable per-litre fee applied for disposal.

Agsafe work with regional councils and state and national farming organisations to ensure farmers engage in the program as much as possible.

“The support from the farming organisations, as well as those local community groups, is so important to the success of the program. The individuals in those organisations really are the champions of our work,” Doyle says.

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