Monday, August 3, 2009

Garden plastics: Signs of hope, but a long way to go

(Plastic pots collected by Moore Landscapes Inc. in Northbrook for recycling. Photo from Linda Kiscellus, Moore Landscapes)
With planting mostly over until the chrysanthemums come along, we have time to contemplate a perennial problem: All the plastic pots and other plastic waste that come from gardening.

Even in a bad economic year, I'm glad to report, some people in the local horticulture scene are trying to tackle that problem. And a big problem it is.

In 2007 and 2008, I wrote a couple of stories in the Chicago Tribune about the fact that the gardening industry -- not just the garden centers and big-box stores we deal with, but all the growers, breeders, fertilizer companies, mulch producers, landscapers, everybody in the behind-the-scenes supply chain -- depend entirely on plastic -- some 320 million pounds of plastic a year, according to a 2004 estimate from the Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences in University Park, Pa. (I couldn't find a more recent estimate, but I doubt it's gone down.) And very little of that is recycled.

Why? Lots of reasons. It doesn't fit into municipal recycling programs because of the wide variety of shapes, sizes and materials used in garden plastic. And the horticulture industry has historically done practically nothing to take responsibility for the waste it produces.

Yet since we gardeners are the customers -- the people whose dollar all those businesses are chasing, the people whose desire for color and bloom and flavor fuels the whole industry, the people who buy all these plants and potions -- we certainly share the responsibility for sending all that plastic to the landfill.

It's not just the pots that we see piled in our garages and basements. A plant may have been transplanted two or three times as it grows before we buy it, and every stage of growth takes place in plastic. A 1-gallon perennial may have required two or three or four pieces of plastic before it reaches a garden. Even a six-pack of annuals can involve at least three pieces of plastic: a plug tray in which the seeds were started, the cell packs the sprouts were transplanted into and the carrier in which the cell packs were carried to the garden center.

Those stories I wrote created some fuss and prompted contributed, I've been told, to some self-examination in the horticulture industry (you can find them on the Chicago Tribune web site here and here). One of them was awarded the Gold Award, top prize from the Garden Writers Association.

(Now I'm going to write a lot about the horticultural industry. But I promise that at the end there will be a list of the places I know of where a Chicago-area gardener can take surplus plastic pots and containers to be reused or recycled.)

Last summer, I thought I was beginning to see progress on the plastic front. Stratospheric oil prices had pushed the price of plastic resin -- which is derived from oil and natural gas -- way up, which made recycled plastic more valuable in places like China that were still cranking out consumer goods to sell back to us.

At least some growers, nursery owners, garden centers and other business people were properly embarrassed to be calling themselves a "green industry" when their whole business depended on plastic that wasn't recycled. Although horticulture is overall a conservative industry, reluctant to change, a few people in it are real leaders and, despite real obstacles, were determined to tackle the problem.

Then came the recession. Americans abruptly stopped buying plastic stuff. The price of oil fell, and with it the value of recycled plastic resin. Brokers who had been willing to buy plastic resin for the China market suddenly weren't. Several pot-recycling initiatives I'd been told about fell through.

But even in a time of scary uncertainty, a few kept pushing. Midwest Groundcovers, a major wholesale grower in St. Charles, started a program to collect pots from its nursery and landscape customers for recycling. Some landscapers started finding a way to recycle the many plants they install in commercial and residential landscapes. Some garden centers collected pots, all the time or on designated days (and often found it boosted their foot traffic and sales). Many of those pots went to the growers who supply the retailers. So a few pots were starting to find their way back up the production and distribution chain they had come down with plants in them.

Master Gardeners in McClean County, down near Bloomington, started a collection program and made it work. The Missouri Botanic Garden, pioneers of plastic pot recycling, collected more pots than ever in the St. Louis area, and the Chicago Botanic Garden collected pots for recycling one weekend in June in Glencoe. I spoke about the plastics issue to the Garden Club of Evanston and at the 2009 Chicago Flower & Garden Show in March.

A few weeks later, Mike Nowak, host of a gardening-and-greening show on WCPT (820 AM), founder of the Midwest Ecological Landscaping Association and vice president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, brought together a group of enlightened growers, garden center and landscaping business owners and executives of the Illinois Green Industry Association, the biggest trade association in this state, to try and get a coordinated effort started in the Chicago area this year, with at least one collection day for pots from businesses and gardeners.

It fell through. The logistics didn't work out, the IGIA told Mike. There wasn't enough interest from businesses. In this slow-to-change industry in a scary, uncertain time, apparently not enough people saw the urgency of moving on an environmental problem.

It was a disappointment. But some people have pushed ahead on their own.

Christy Webber Landscapes, a big landscape contractor, not only recycles pots from their own installations but decided to accept them for recycling from gardeners, both at their yards and at their newly purchased garden center, Grand Street Gardens.

Moore Landscapes, another big landscape contractor, started collecting, cleaning and sorting grower pots to try and recycle them, shipping many of them back to Midwest Groundcovers. But they came up against one of the obstacles: As many as a third of the polystyrene containers--such as cell packs and trays -- aren't stamped with the little triangle that indicates that a container is recyclable and what it is made of, according to purchasing manager Linda Kiscellus.

Yet any horticultural plastic can be recycled, triangle or not, according to Nathan Diller, recycling manager for East Jordan Plastics in Michigan. His family's company (which started out three generations ago making the wooden flats in which plants used to be grown and now makes all kinds of pots, flats and other horticultural containers) recently bought a 130,000-square-foot recycling factory in South Haven, Michigan, that is dedicated entirely to recycling garden plastics. And they can tell well enough what a flat or cellpack is made of even if it was made from a mold too old to have the recycling triangle, he said.

So far, most of the plastic they collect is from Michigan growers, Diller said, but they would love to gather in plastic from the Chicago area, if they can get it in properly sorted and consolidated into large enough quantities to be worth trucking a couple of hours up I-94.

Already, the company recycles plastic from some Home Depot and Meijier stores in the Chicago area and elsewhere that have started pilot programs to accept plastic from retail customers, I'm told. (I haven't been able to confirm this, so don't take pots to your local Home Depot or Meijier without calling ahead to make sure that store is participating in the program.)

All the plastic recycled at East Jordan's facility, Diller says, will be made into more horticultural containers -- closed-loop recycling that is a far sight better, it seems to me, than shipping resin to China to be made into who knows what.

One company that brings plastic to East Jordan is Luurtsema Sales, a big grower based in Jension, Michigan. Luurtsema matters to us here because they supply plants to all those tents in Chicago-area Jewel supermarket parking lots (as well as many independent garden centers and other retailers).

For two years, Luurtsema has been gathering up pots at those Jewel tents and other retailers in Chicago, Michigan and elsewhere in the Midwest. In 2008, they collected about 10.5 tons, according to Rob Arnold of Luurtsema. (Included in that total was a couple of hundred pots, flats and cell packs from my own basement, which I toted over to my local Jewel after I noticed a tattered little flyer in the tent offering to take them off my hands.)

This year, after doing some more sophisticated promotion (better signs, I noticed), Luurtsema collected about 22 tons, more than double the previous year's crop. About 60 percent of that will be reused in Luurtsema's own operations and the other 40 percent goes to East Jordan to be recycled.

There are other efforts underway around the area, though it's not easy. Growers, landscapers and retailers that want to make progress are up against complexities -- the lack of standardization in plastic materials and sizes, the difficulty of collecting the plastic from many nurseries and retailers in one place in truckload quantities, the difficulty of cleaning soil from the pots (that takes a lot of water), the fact that stacking and rinsing all those containers requires labor that is hard to pay for when times are tough, fears about reusing pots that aren't completely sterile in greenhouses where a few bacteria or fungus spores can spread a disease like wildfire. Business owners can come up with a lot of reasons why this is difficult.

One big difficulty, it seems to me, is a lack of coordination and information. I was the one who told Kiscellus about the existence of the East Jordan facility. Why should a blogger have to be the one to tell her? Why isn't this information coursing through the Illinois green industry?

But bottom line: It is possible. The technology exists to recycle garden plastic. These early experiments show that gardeners are willing. What is required is the will on the industry's part to solve the problems and make it happen. The green industry can be greener if everyone in it will step up and take responsibility for being greener.

Sure, recycling plastic is not the ultimate answer to a sustainable gardening future. In the long run, like all of us, the industry needs to use less plastic in the first place. In the long run, they need to reduce the amount of plastic in each pot, to streamline production of plants so fewer pots are needed, to find a workable replacement for plastic that is biodegradable. People are working on all those problems. But in the meantime, simply recycling pots, flats, cell packs and plug trays is an essential first step.

So what should a gardener do? We can reduce our own use of plastic by growing plants from seed, starting seeds in reused or recyclable containers and acquiring plants by swapping with our friends and neighbors instead of buying them. We can plant long-lived plants, such as native perennials, that need to be replaced less often, requiring fewer pots (and saving money and effort, I might add). We can remember that every time we buy a plant, we are buying not one plastic pot but several, and think about what's going to happen to the pot the plant came in.

But it isn't realistic -- nor is it desirable -- for us totally give up buying plants in pots. We don't want our favorite garden centers and the growers that supply them to go out of business for lack of customers. And without the excitement of trying new plants and of making our garden visions come alive with new plantings, much of the fun would go out of our gardening. Some of us wouldn't be able to grow our favorite vegetables and herbs if we couldn't buy them in pots.

But we have a choice about where we buy those plants. We can decide what kind of people and what kind of companies we want to buy them from.

So let's own up to our part in the plastic waste problem and demand that the people who do business with us own up to theirs. Let's collect our pots and take them to be recycled. If that isn't convenient, let's demand that garden businesses make it convenient. Let's reward the forward-thinking retailers and landscapers who have stepped up with our gardening dollars. Let's hold this "green industry" accountable for constantly moving toward becoming as green as it says it is.

It's our buck they are all chasing. That gives us leverage. Let's use it.

I'll be on Mike Nowak's radio show Sunday, Aug. 9, and we'll be discussing this issue further. So tune in: noon to 2 p.m., WCPT, 820-AM. I also will be speaking on this topic on Oct. 19 at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Now, the list:

Where Chicago-area gardeners can take garden plastic to be recycled or reused

These are the ones I have confirmed as of July 30. Know of more? Send me an e-mail at and I'll check them out and add them to the list.

Sid's Greenhouses in Bolingbrook and Palos Hills (they encourage customers to take post for reuse)
Gethsemane Garden Center, 5739 N. Clark St., Chicago
Vern Goers Greenhouse, Hinsdale (only pots from plants that they sold)
Heinz Brothers Greenhouse Garden Center, St. Charles
Platt Hill Nursery, Bloomingdale and Carpentersville (only containers with recycling numbers 2, 5 and 6)
Grand Street Gardens, 2200 W. Grand Ave., Chicago
Christy Webber Landscapes, 2900 W. Ferdinand St., Chicago, and 11900 S. Division St., Blue Island
The Natural Garden, St. Charles

Got a garden question? I recommend you call or e-mail the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Master Gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension or the Plant Information Service of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

All contents of this post are copyright Beth Botts. Feel free to link or share a brief excerpt with a link, but please do not reproduce photos or any other part of this blog without my express permission.


Andrew's Reclaimed said...

Excellent article. I had no idea that even the non-triangle posts can be recycled.

sANDRA said...

As a gardener who starts plants from seeds, I'd love to see these garden centers allow the home gardener access to their recycled pots. This would save me from scouring the neighborhood trash looking for pots to use.

Shawna said...

If it's any encouragement - I've worked with Proven Winners this season and their pots are supposed to be recyclable.

Lovely article - keep up the good work!


Don Eberly said...

Nice article, Beth.

Don Eberly

Philip Schaafsma said...

Keep up the good work Beth. As the owner of Sid's we have been taking pots back for several years. We allow any one access to bring plastic containers or take some if they wish. We try to reuse as many as we can in our growing operation and return to other growers. The rest are sent in to recycle. We all need to do our little part.
Philip Schaafsma, Sr.
Sid's Greenhouses & Garden Center
Palos Hills and Bolingbrook

Rashmi said...

Interesting articleBeth. Have been wondering how to tackle my customer issues on waste plactic. Good some good ideas from your article.

Rashmi Attavar
Indo American Hybrid Seeds,
Bangalore. INDIA

Clay Parks said...

I think while you have some good points on recycled pots in recent posts, you may be missing the picture as a whole. The floriculture industry as a whole is green and sustainable in itself providing living plants material and beauty to the end consumer. The majority of plastics that are used in the industry come from recycled plastics using very little virgin resin to produce the material.

ebemis said...

Beth, I am sorry that you got word that the Illinois Green Industry Association felt its members had little interest in plastics recycling. While I am from New England and cannot speak for them, I know that it is a topic of discussion at meetings I attend in different parts of the country. We have not found a solution here in New England but we are definitely concerned. The problem for us seems to be that plastics recyclers in our area are not interested in ANY plastics that are the least bit dirty, and that is most of what we all have.

Beth Botts said...

I'm on my way over to the big Mid-Am horticultural show in Chicago, and I'll be looking for more signs of change. There definitely are a lot of issues to be overcome, but I can't believe there aren't ways to overcome them. In general, I do see signs that at least a few in the "green" industry are starting to assimilate sustainable values, and may lead the industry toward new ways of doing things.

Dave said...

I am so glad that there are so many people that are as concerned about this as this Crystal Lake Landscaping company. I hope the word spreads and we can all become more green.