Next time you’re enjoying an omelette, think about petunias … or impatiens … or geraniums.
Can’t see the connection? Wait a few years, and if researchers with the Agricultural Research Service in the U.S. are successful, a new generation of biodegradable pots will have a little cluck in their background.
Chemist Walter Schmidt, who works with the ARS Environmental Byproduct Utilization Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, has been studying potential uses for discarded chicken feathers. It seems each year there are some four billion pounds of chicken feathers left over after processing in U.S. facilities alone. The enterprising scientist has been working with colleagues to formulate horticultural pots that degrade over variable periods of time, ranging from one to five years.
So we can add feathers to the list of biodegradable options for horticultural containers, which already includes coco coir, peat, straw, rice hulls and wheat, to name a few.
Recycling programs for used containers is another sustainability trend; many plastic pots live multiple lives. Nutrient recycling is increasingly common, as are energy screens and alternative fuels.
Prof. Roberto Lopez of Purdue University in Indiana has recently conducted a pair of sustainability studies. The good news is that more than 65 per cent of growers contacted viewed sustainable practices as being very important to the environment. However, if the grower perceived any financial risk, the odds of them adopting sustainable practices decreased about 25 times. Perceived risks are chilling enthusiasm for sustainability. “Let’s say a grower wants to recycle their water,” said Lopez. “If they don’t do it properly, they could easily spread diseases among their plants and have severe losses.”
More than half the growers surveyed reported recycling plastic pots and/or greenhouse glazings, recycling or conserving water and energy, composting, and using biological controls. Fewer than half use energy curtains, organic fertilizer, chemical runoff protection, biodegradable pots or alternative energy sources.
Lopez has found little support among growers for formal sustainability certification. Two-thirds aren’t interested in spending the time and money on the audits, and one-third hadn’t even heard of Veriflora and MPS.
Why the reluctance? Many growers aren’t sure they will be able to recoup the cost of certification.
But that’s not true. After the capital investment, sustainability measures often result in reduced expenses. Energy curtains are a prime example, as they can reduce heating costs by 30 per cent. Nutrient recycling saves significantly on fertilizer and water usage. And some programs, such as MPS, allow growers to assess their operations against continually updated benchmarks, to see where further savings and efficiencies are possible.
Sustainability is important to growers, but unless there’s a certification push from the retail side, as was the case in Europe with MPS, industry response will be measured and slow.
According to Lopez, some $230 billion is spent each year in the U.S. alone on socially and environmentally responsible products. Are we missing out on that market? Certification certainly merits further consideration. ■
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