With all eyes on sustainability, biodegradable pots may be the wave of the future.
June 17, 2008
The Home Depot recently launched its Eco Options program to promote sustainable, earth-friendly products. Wal-Mart has taken measures to ensure its manufacturers are minimizing the amount of packaging they're using. Green is definitely en vogue, and our industry is taking heed.
Gary McColeman, marketing manager for China MBCC Garden Craft Manufactory, has been working with North American growers and distributors to introduce Biopots (www.biopots.com), imported from China, to the marketplace. Biopots are biodegradable, pollution-free flower pots made from bamboo, rice husks and straw, and according to McColeman, they're on their way to becoming the next big thing for the green industry.
"Home Depot and Wal-Mart - all they want to see is growers come to them with new ideas and new technology," he says. "Now it appears they're in the environmental business big time. The grower has to get smart if he wants to deal with those types of accounts, and there are going to be more of them, not less of them."
Will They Pay For Them?
One of the concerns growers have about biodegradable pots is price.
"They're too expensive," says P.J. Vermeer, general manager of Westbrook Floral. "It's a problem because we are not convinced that our customers will pay for it."
Westbrook just received its first batch of biodegradable pots in early March and have only just begun growing in them. Vermeer says it's still too early to determine how they'll fare.
"We have to see how these pots do, so it is really premature," he says. "I hope it works."
McColeman realizes pricing is a concern for growers, but notes that plastic pots will be under price pressure as long as oil prices keep rising. He also points out that some governments may think about putting a disposable tax on plastic containers, which is currently happening with nursery containers in Canada.
"Look at the trend with plastic shopping bags, where several North American cities, including San Francisco, have eliminated them," he adds.
Some growers, though, don't consider pricepoint to be an issue. Al's Garden Center, a grower/retailer in Woodburn, Ore., trialed some biodegradable pots last August for poinsettias and was pleased with the results.
"The price of the plastic pot that we were using and the mylar sleeve is about equal to the biodegradable pots that we've substituted for the two of them," says Jack Bigej, owner of Al's Garden Center.
Bigej also says Al's wanted to differentiate its poinsettias, and the biodegradable pots, which he says are better looking and better for the plants than plastic pots, were a great way to do that.
"Cost is the same, and you're coming up with a biodegradable pot, and you're coming up with an attractive package," he says. "We've come up with a look that we like for the poinsettia so they can go straight on the table. It doesn't have to be hidden like a plastic pot would be."
In addition to poinsettias, Al's has brought in between 40,000 and 50,000 biodegradable pots and is trying several different plants in them - a "Whitman's Sampler," as Bigej describes it. He's been especially pleased with some dwarf, pink carnations in a bright blue biodegradable pot. "It looks very attractive," he says.
McColeman agrees that the pots provide added value in a market that's starving for a way to increase returns. "The cost of their [growers'] product keeps going up, but the return they're getting keeps at the same level as the 1950s maybe. In other words, they're not getting any more for it," McColeman says. "One of the ways they can get more for their product is to add value. Let's replace the plastic sleeve with a biodegradable pot. Let's take the plastic pot off the orchid."
This is exactly what Al's Garden Center has done. Bigej says he likes the way the pots distinguish them and says they're marketing and pushing the sustainability aspect of the business, using biodegradable pots as one of their selling points. "The customers seem to be very readily accepting that and applauding it," he says.
Another concern growers have expressed is the biodegradable pots' irregular sizes. They might not work with some greenhouse equipment.
"We're concerned about the products flowing through our automated processes, because plastic pots are all identically the same, whereas the biodegradable pots we've seen so far are not necessarily that way, so that could present a problem at the grower level," says Vermeer. To address this problem, McColeman explains that growers are offered samples free of charge to try. For larger quantities of samples, growers pay only freight costs. If the pots don't work for them, they have virtually nothing to lose.
Bigej, on the other hand, says he's not concerned about using biodegradable pots in automation equipment, because that's not the reason Al's Garden Center chose to use the pots in the first place.
"We are grower-retailers, and we're using these as accent pots," he says. "We're not producing 7 million of the same color, same size and same look. This is something to stand apart and be different. If we want to do a million of something, we're going to do a black plastic or a terracotta and be done with it. This is to accent our retail, and consequently we are charging more for it."
As far as crop quality is concerned, Bigej says he's seen no difference between plants grown in biodegradable pots versus plants grown in plastic pots, and the biodegradable pots seem to be holding up, too. The pots he's using are guaranteed to last at least two years.
Embracing The Ideology
McColeman isn't afraid to admit that biodegradable flower pots might not take off instantly, and not all growers are going to like the idea of them. But, he does believe it's only a matter of time before the pots are embraced by consumers, and his recent trip to the consumer Green Living Show in Toronto this spring reaffirmed that. Al Gore was the featured guest and spoke to a sold out audience.
"It's going to be a hard sell, but I think it's going to be a topic of its time," he says. "It may take three, four or five years. It may take several production cycles in a greenhouse before the grower finds something that's going to work for him with his equipment. But either he's going to make the investment or not. That's the way it's going to be. The ones that come out ahead will be the ones that figure out how to do it."
He notes that the ever-increasing popularity of products like hybrid cars and organic produce prove the general public's environmental awareness is growing, and in the end, the pots' success depends on them.
"The final judge of all this - the final person who is going to make the decision on this product is not the grower," he says. "It's going to be the consumer who shops at these stores. It's going to be you, Mrs. Consumer, that's going to walk up there, and if you can identify this as a biodegradable pot and you have any understanding of the environmental call, you're going to make a decision at the store level. You're going to buy it or not, and price is not going to be the factor."
Ann-Marie Vazzano is managing editor of American Fruit Grower magazine, a Meister publication.