The Wonders Of Plastics
Horticultural plastics are here to stay, but their role may change as new materials come to market. What does the future hold for this industry-changing material?
October 15, 2011
Landmark Plastic's Jim Frederick recalls visiting a greenhouse operation 20-plus years ago and struggling to sell the value of plastics to a grower whose pots were all clay. But midway through the visit, a stack of clay pots suddenly tipped, slammed into the floor and sent broken pieces in all directions. The incident led to what may have been the easiest sale Frederick has made, as the grower converted his entire business to plastics afterward.
More importantly, the incident serves as a welcome reminder of the container options to which growers were once limited. It's also a reminder of plastic's ease of handling and its durability, two of plastic's many advantages.
"There's nothing better than horticultural plastic," Frederick says.
Clearly, plastic is the most-used material on the horticultural containers front. But its role is slowly being challenged by materials like composted cow manure, rice hulls and straw. Many of these new materials are still working to prove their worth to growers, but there's no question such alternatives at least pique grower interest.
Still, a world without plastic is one in which some growers arguably would not survive. Plastic's affordability, at least compared to other horticultural containers, makes business more manageable. So fortunately, horticultural plastics probably aren't going away in our lifetimes.
"Growers are very dependent on plastics because they need a cost-effective material to hold and transport the soil mix in order to grow plants cost effectively," says Lars Peter Jensen, national sales manager at The Blackmore Company.
But what does the future hold for plastic? Will we use it at the same rate 20 years from now as we do today? Is it possible other materials will surface that are comparable to or even better than plastic? Let's explore.
A Competitor's Perspective
To Jim Lee, the marketing manager at Western Pulp Products whose business is built on molded fiber - not plastic - plastic is clearly the industry standard for containers. It's a wonderful product, Lee says, that's allowed growers to grow and ship products more easily. It also offers great flexibility in size and color.
"Plastic containers are a big factor in a plant program," Lee says. "It's almost like the chicken and the egg: The container becomes almost as powerful as the actual plants. I've had propagators talk about their programs and everyone talks out the side of their mouth that the pot's more important than the plant."
Comparing plastic to Western Pulp's molded fiber, he adds, is like comparing a brick house to a wooden house: Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but both have a role in the industry. The ability to brand directly on containers, however, is one area in which plastic has an edge over other materials.
"Molded fiber is like the un-Cola," Lee says. "We are kind of the generic-looking one. Sometimes people will say we're not particularly attractive, but there's another side in that we're not distractive. I don't know that the whole world wants to buy everything in a branded pot."
Western Pulp does label some pots but, ironically, it puts a plastic band around them to offer full-color graphics and a bar code. Lee indicates technology is finally arriving that may allow manufacturers to print directly onto molded fiber pots. But even then he wonders if printing defeats the unique role his product and others play in the containers market.
"You have to be careful you're not all things to all people," Lee says. "I don't envision it's going to be 'we get rid of plastics' or 'plastic is evil.' I think the consumer is looking for options, just like in anything. Perhaps they want paper or plastic. Or organic or traditional."
Karl Eckert, the owner of Eckert's Greenhouse and designer of the Weekender plastic pot, sees a place for multiple container types, too. Eckert's used to grow many of its 3- and 4-inch plant material in plastic, but it switched mainly to fiber pots five or six years ago because the communities around the grower-retailer were not providing curbside recycling.
"We were finding people were just throwing their pots in the landfill," Eckert says. "After that, we said we'll take that out of people's hands and bring them fiber."
Still, as a grower Eckert sees the value of plastic and can't imagine operating without it.
"We've been in plastic for so many years," he says. "Without it, we wouldn't be as progressive. It's brought us along at a much faster clip. I can see plastic evolving and us still using it a lot. But different things are going to be on the market."
Issues With Alternatives
Still, growers will demand any new container materials conform to existing automation - or that new technologies be developed to accommodate new materials through automation.
"The number one issue for growers is labor," says Rick Bradt, managing director at A.M.A. Plastics. "Growers are going to have to automate because of it. The other thing they're going to have to do is propagate inside a controlled environment, which is a greenhouse. That automatically moves them to some form of automation."
And when growers automate, they need standards. As Bradt points out, items like the Straw Pot don't have accommodating automation. Maybe such items will be accommodated in years to come, but the automation must be there when new container types hit the market.
"Plastic really does offer the best solution at the moment," Bradt says. "Do you want to use more energy, space, labor and equipment to move product around? Or do you want to make that more efficient? Containers and automation are tied together, so I don't think plastic is the devil some people make it out to be. It may even be saving us from less-green issues."
Lee has concerns with biocontainers, as well, and one of his biggest ones relate to recycling.
"Some of these bioplastics are a problem for the industry because if there's polystyrene, polypropylene or other materials, there are some contaminants," Lee says. "So you can't recycle them."
If manufacturers can find ways around issues with contamination, there's clearly a market for biocontainers. Roberto G. Lopez, an assistant professor at Purdue University, conducted a study on longer-term crops like poinsettias and their performance in biocontainers like Summit Plastic's Circle of Life pot, Jiffy's peat pot and ITML's coir fiber pot. As part of the study, Lopez asked consumers if they'd be willing to pay more for poinsettias produced in biocontainers. More than half (53 percent) indicated they would. A small percentage was even willing to pay between 50 cents and $1 more.
"Consumers are really interested in locally produced," Lopez says. "For the industry, marketing something as locally produced within a city or a state is key."
Although biocontainers are directly competing against horticultural plastics for a grower's business, plastics manufacturers are the ones embracing biocontainers (or at least containers deemed "alternatives") in many cases. Landmark Plastic, for example, is partnering with Jiffy Products America on the new, starch-based CarbonLite pot that reduces reliance on fossil fuels.
"We are in the business of providing growing containers for growers, so it is only natural, as with most products or industries, to offer options," says Bob Merzweiler, CEO of Landmark Plastic. "We have experimented with many materials that can be utilized with our existing manufacturing processes. These have mostly been non-petroleum based resins that offer the potential for compostability or biodegradability, and in some cases lower carbon footprints."
Jim Daw, director of operations at Myers Lawn and Garden, agrees.
"Our job is to provide our customers with solutions without bias to any specific material," Daw says. "We are continuously searching for new and innovative materials and products that will provide solutions."
But just because plastics manufacturers incorporate a few alternatives into their offerings doesn't mean they're abandoning their core product.
"Plastic packaging has been a very common and integral part of (grower) operations, and it's been the best choice," Merzweiler says. "It is very cost efficient, it transports to the growers well, it creates a good growing environment, it works well to ship plants and it is good for consumers to buy and take home plants. It serves many purposes for retailers, from marketing and display to shelf life. It is mostly produced from recycled materials and it is recyclable."