Grading Biodegradable Pots
Now that they have a few years under their belts, growers share their experiences producing plants in non-plastic pots.
March 23, 2009
Sustainability. It's not just a buzzword. It's increasingly becoming a way of life for many consumers, and that couldn't be any more evident than in grocery stores, where once ubiquitous petroleum-based plastic bags now share the limelight with more sustainable alternatives like reusable totes. The ornamental horticulture industry isn't immune to this fundamental shift in consumer behavior, either. Over the last several years, growers have been experimenting with compostable and biodegradable pots to cater to consumers' growing environmental consciousness.
What's The Verdict?
A lot of growers have questions about the efficacy of these earth-friendly pots, and now that several operations have grown in them for a couple years, they're able to share their experiences. While the pots can have their quirks, growers tend to agree there are more positives than negatives.
"I would say the benefits far outweigh the negatives," says Suzanne Baker, head grower and president at Rush Creek Growers, Inc. in Spring Valley, Wis.
Rush Creek began growing in sustainable pots three years ago through Ball's Circle Of Life program. The operation has since expanded its eco-friendly pot production, growing a substantial portion of its plants in rice-based pots. Baker says choosing a supplier for the pots was an arduous process.
"I actually spent one summer just getting all the different pots from all the different manufacturers and then getting all the trays from all the tray manufacturers, because one of the challenges was to find the right tray for the pot," she says. "Those two things hadn't been coordinated at that time."
Baker decided on Biopots from Bellan International and trays from Summit Plastic. She says the plants, as well as the consumers, love the pots.
"We've cut down our losses on them because they really dry out in a nice way," she says. "The top inch of soil will dry out really nicely, but the moisture stays in them."
What To Watch Out For
Like any new product a grower tries, it takes some time to get used to the idiosyncrasies of earth-friendly pots. John Casertano, vice president at N. Casertano Greenhouses and Farms Inc. in Cheshire, Conn., which is in its second year using Biopots for perennial production, says the pots have held up well. But he did learn early on that they are more delicate than their plastic counterparts.
The pots are rigid rather than malleable, so they can be used in the machinery the way traditional plastic pots are. According to Casertano, though, that means they can be somewhat brittle. "If you accidentally drop them or kick them, there's a chance they'll break," he says.
Casertano's had pots custom developed to fit the operation's needs, which has meant a smooth transition. The pot was designed to have slots in the lower sides so the plants' roots could grow through them. The program was targeted at Home Depot, and according to Casertano the sell-through percentage on the Biopots (at a higher price point) was higher than on the plastic pots of the same size. Casertano's has taken advantage of the fact that the product can be marketed as sustainable and has been able to command higher prices, too.
"I think part of the problem with plastic in the horticultural industry is that much of it is not recyclable, or recycling it is so confusing that I think consumers have gotten frustrated trying to figure out what they can recycle," Casertano says. "By providing the sustainable product, we've been able to promote it as such and have been able to get a little bit more money for it."
Kalamazoo Flower Group has been producing its Homegrown Fresh line of naturally grown vegetables and herbs in a rice hull pot for five seasons, and while general manager Chad Underwood says customers have responded well to the pots, there have been no widespread requests for the grower to produce other products in the rice-based pots.
"There is a perception that a non-plastic pot is more eco-friendly," Underwood says. "This has a certain amount of appeal for some of our customers. There is also no extra effort needed related to recycling these pots, as there is with plastic pots that are not accepted in neighborhood curbside recycling programs." But Underwood is quick to note that recycled, plastic pots can be sustainable, too. "We are working to educate our customers on plastic recycling efforts our company is involved with," he says. "They are learning that recycled plastic is also an environmentally conscious alternative to other production methods."
Before You Invest
For growers thinking about trying earth-friendly pots, there are some things to consider before diving in. "We have not changed our growing techniques as a result of using the rice pots. In our experience, plant performance in the greenhouse is unchanged," Underwood says. "But growers should learn what materials the pot they are considering is made from, and we would recommend a small-scale trial to determine how the pots will hold up throughout the growing process."
Baker agrees. "I would really suggest that people do a trial," she says. "They (Biopots) are heavier, and therefore the crop is heavier as it's growing in the tray, so the trays need to be well made in order to be able to handle them without them cracking."
Casertano says it's important to think even beyond the practical matters. "I actually think the most important consideration is, what's the value-added proposition that I'm trying to relay to the customer so that I can get paid for this investment?" he says. "If we're going to invest in biodegradable pots, we need to tell the story and provide the value to the customer in order to pay for the investment, and I think being thoughtful about that story before a grower jumps into using a biodegradable pot is very important."
Casertano adds that he's hopeful the industry continues in this direction. "We're in a sustainable industry - we create plant life," he says. "We want to be in a position where we're promoting our industry as a feel-good hobby that allows people to do something they can also feel has a positive environmental impact all the way around."
Ann-Marie Vazzano is managing editor of American Fruit Grower magazine, a Meister publication.