Inside View: Growing green options in packaging your plants

May 05, 2009
Written by Gary Jones
Globally, there are billions (yes, that’s with a ‘b’!) of plants grown in plastic containers each year. That’s a big carbon footprint and a lot of plastic to get rid of. Hence, one of the reasons why potted and bedding plant growers in Europe have been working with government schemes to monitor and manage plastic (and polystyrene) containers for their crops for some years. But what are some options for growers to reduce the amount of plastic in their packaging?

RECYCLE – European growers are required to show that a predetermined percentage of plastic and polystyrene packaging is recycled each year. Of course, this takes effort, but it is one way to take some leadership in controlling waste and “setting a good example” to customers. Perhaps you should offer this service to your retail customers, as some growers have been doing for some time. It’s a great way to encourage them to make a return visit! If the pots or trays cannot be totally recycled by reusing them for a second crop (e.g., because of disease issues), then they can be sent for recycling into other plastic goods.

ALTERNATIVES – Pots seemingly come in many guises these days. Some of the alternatives to plastic have been available for some time, including bamboo, rice husks or rice straw, paper, spruce fibre, peat, straw, and coco fibre. Pots made from many such materials are available in most common sizes. One-gallon coco fibre pots, for example, are being used by a herb grower and a “destination” retail garden centre in British Columbia.

Some newer, or at least less known, alternatives are also available, and pop up at trade shows with increasing regularity. Check out these other options at your next show:

Switchgrass.            

Grain husks.

Feather pots.            

Sugar cane.

Human hair pots!

Some of these products can also be used for manufacturing other parts of the bedding plant or potted product, such as the labels and handles of packs. ‘Biotags’® are handles made from certified biodegradable ‘plastic’ and containers made from 100 per cent recycled paper. Therefore, these whole containers are compostable.

Of course, the cost of many of these materials is more than the equivalent sized plastic pot, typically between 50 and 100 per cent more expensive. However, the cost of plastic rarely (if ever) factors into the true environmental costs of waste plastic. Plastic is a material that never degrades. Sure, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, but it never totally disappears. (This means that all of the plastic ever made is still in existence!) Hence, there are major pollution costs associated with improperly disposed of plastics; sea life at the bottom of the food chain is said by some to be consuming huge quantities of plastic instead of their real food sources. This is particularly true of coloured plastics (pink, red and terracotta) that mimic plankton/krill in appearance.

BIO-POTS
– Perhaps even consider if the pots can be removed altogether, by using ‘bio-pots’ and other alternatives such as ‘Ellepots’® , Jiffypots® or Preforma® products. Such containers are also incorporating newer and greener ideas, such as the 70mm Jiffy “Carefree” plug that is made with a corn-starch netting.

If you’re not yet using these plastic alternatives, consider that they now make up a consistent 25 per cent of the market for containers. Typically, this figure disappears in times of financial hardship as people revert to cheaper products (i.e., plastic!), but during the recent economic downturn, some manufacturers are claiming this has not happened. The implication is that such materials are no longer a green “fashion statement,” but an essential element of the industry product. If you are not offering these types of containers with your plants, you are missing out on an increasingly large market share that is not going away.

Oh, and perhaps these materials will one day help, especially in British Columbia, with carbon taxes (about $30/tonne) that will need to be reported by 2012.

With thanks to Ron Marchuk of Kwantlen for some of this information.

Gary Jones is Chair of Production Horticulture at Kwantlen University, Langley, B.C. He sits on several industry committees and would welcome comments at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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