Like many urban areas, we hear complaints every spring about the number of plastic garden containers consumers collect and have to deal with for disposal. Across the United States, millions of pounds of agricultural plastics, including flower and vegetable containers, are discarded into local landfills every year. As in many states, the nursery and greenhouse industry is one of the few growth sectors in Virginia agriculture. With increasing focus on promoting the nursery and greenhouse industry as the original “green” industry, we wanted to address container recycling.
Initially, we contacted most of the recycling centers in Virginia and found only a few that accepted plastic garden containers for recycling. In September 2008, Greenhouse Grower Editor Delilah Onofrey wrote, “Since we don’t have the power to influence the entire garbage collection industry, the best we can do is create programs that make it easier for growers and consumers to recycle plastic pots.” Keeping those words in mind, we decided to create our own container collection program.
Our pilot project in the Richmond, Va., area collected more than 7,500 pounds of plastic garden containers and flats. Several additional pallets of collected material were reused by schools, community gardening groups and other businesses in the area. So, how did we do it?
1. Identify A Point Person
John Ignosh is a Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) specialist focused on issues related to disposal of agricultural wastes, including plastics. Ignosh published information concerning plastic reuse and disposal at the Biological Systems Engineering Agricultural Byproduct Extension website. This website provides details on the post-consumer plastic recycling market, energy prices, plastic brokers and recyclers, best practices developed in other states and a local recycling center mapper (Earth 911), along with information related to waste diversion efforts in Virginia.
In response to requests for recycling information from commercial greenhouse and nursery operations, Ignosh initiated educational efforts in 2009 with two grower group meetings and a web-based session detailing novel waste plastic utilization technologies.
2. Identify The Players
With the assistance of the Virginia Tech Department of Horticulture, Ignosh identified the players. A simple survey distributed at local and statewide green industry meetings identified greenhouse and nursery operations interested in recycling their own plastic wastes and/or collecting consumer material. Associations like the Virginia Green Industry Council (VGIC), the Virginia Flower Growers Association (VFGA), the Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association (VNLA) and the Virginia Master Gardener Association (VMGA) were immediately interested in supporting and promoting the effort. Through these groups and industry surveys, we identified the garden centers in the Richmond area that had a strong interest in developing a consumer recycling program.
We met with these retailers, representatives of the interested associations and a local plastics broker to develop a pilot project in the Richmond area. Only one of the operations, Strange’s Garden Center, (Richmond) committed two of its locations to the initial program in April 2010. Boulevard Flower Gardens (Colonial Heights) joined the program last June, and Cross Creek Nursery & Landscaping (Richmond) joined last September.
3. Identify The Recycling Partner & Collection Requirements
Plastics must be sorted by resin codes, and not all recyclers accept all codes or types of plastic. After researching the possibilities, we partnered with East Jordan Plastics (East Jordan, Mich.) because it accepted all types of garden containers and was willing to work with us on the pilot project. East Jordan was even willing to pick up less than a full truckload if necessary. Containers had to be sorted by resin code, nested and palletized.
4. Develop & Distribute Educational Resources
This wasn’t the strongest part of our effort in 2010, but we recommend these materials be developed and distributed to garden centers and volunteers before the program is promoted. Lisa Sanderson, Extension educator and VCE Master Gardener coordinator for Henrico County, developed several signs and brochures for use by the garden centers to assist consumers and volunteers in sorting the plastics.
Luurtsema Sales, another container plastic recycler in Michigan, contributed a customized recycling sign for our program. As we prepared for 2011, we were developing posters and display boards containing the variety of containers that comprise each resin code to post at the collection bins to improve proper sorting, especially by consumers. For 2011, we are conducting training sessions for volunteers interested in assisting with the project.
5. Identify People To Help
There is no question collecting consumer plastics requires a commitment of time, resources and space by the participating garden center. However, the assistance of interested volunteer groups was critical to the success of our pilot project.
In the Richmond area, the Extension Master Gardener (MG) program is very active. With Sanderson’s strong leadership, 21 Henrico Extension MG volunteers invested 84 hours in educational programming on recycling for consumers at Strange’s Garden Center, as well as in sorting and consolidating the collected containers on site. At Boulevard Flower Gardens, students from the local high school’s vocational education program provided assistance in sorting and consolidating pots at a nominal cost.
6. Identify Regional Collection Sites & Methods Of Handling
A major issue for the pilot project was how to consolidate the pallets in a single area for pickup by the recycler. Although East Jordan was willing to pick up at more than one location in Virginia, it couldn’t stop at every retailer that collected a few pallets.
In the Richmond area, the manager of the Griffin Greenhouse & Nursery Supplies warehouse, Jeff Wetsel, was willing to collect palletized containers from these participating garden centers, return the pallets to the warehouse and store them there until they were picked up by the recycler. This allowed removal of full pallets from the retail locations on a regular basis, reducing their clutter and storage issues. Storing the pallets in the warehouse kept the materials dry and allowed easy access and good working conditions for volunteers who did a final sorting and consolidation of the containers prior to pickup.
7. Publicize The Program
We used local press releases, the plastics disposal website and the garden centers’ websites to advertise the collection effort and sites. Consider local promotions tied in with spring gardening events at the garden centers or larger promotions such as a fall garden cleanup. Our pilot project missed the spring events but our fall garden cleanup press release and flyer distributed by the garden centers was very effective in bringing in containers–and customers.
8. Open The Collection Program To Landscapers
Garden centers were not able to receive and process containers from landscapers. Therefore, we made the program available to them by receiving the palletized material at the Griffin warehouse. We required that they be nested, palletized and shrink-wrapped. The uniformity of their containers made them easy to process.
9. Open The Collection To Wholesale Growers
In early fall, we opened the collection up to growers in the Richmond area. Several pallets of flats and containers were collected.
10. Consolidate The Material & Arrange Pickup By Recycler
The final effort in the process was to consolidate the material. Many of the pallets of collected pots were only loosely nested due to the nature of collecting small quantities from a variety of sources at any one time. The Richmond area Extension MG volunteers held two work parties in the Griffin warehouse to pull out the pots, sort and clean them as necessary, and stack like pots back into the bins to maximize the amounts of plastic per pallet.
We estimate that about 42 hours of volunteer time was required to consolidate one tractor trailer load of plastics in our pilot project. Most of our plastics were collected in “pumpkin” bins secured to wooden pallets. The garden centers purchased the bins (about $10 each). These were stackable, but handling and loading them into the recycler’s trailer required a forklift and operator which, for our pilot project, were supplied by Griffin Greenhouse & Nursery Supplies. The pallets collected by the recycler’s truck were delivered and processed within a week after we notified East Jordan the material was ready for pickup.
With more than 50 pallets of plastics collected, we actually had more material than would fit on the recycler’s trailer. A total of 7,516 pounds of plastic was sent to East Jordan Plastics. Fifty-two percent of that was high-density polyethylene (resin code 2), 30 percent was polypropylene (resin code 5) and 17 percent was polystyrene (resin code 6). The total value of the shipment was just over $400, which was donated to the VMGA for its State Master Gardener Coordinator endowment fund.
In addition to recycled plastics, several pallets of containers were removed from the collection to be reused by schools, community colleges, community groups and Master Gardeners who do local plant sales, and other commercial growers.
Was the project worth it to the garden centers? Tom Rush, garden center manager at Strange’s Garden Center’s Broad Street location, says the experience was good public relations and increased repeat visitors returning their pots. “We’ve learned a lot this past year, and with additional promotion at our spring events, think we can increase consumer participation and manage the collection more efficiently this year,” he says.
We consider the pilot project to be a huge success for our first effort. Now that we have an estimate of consumer interest and of the amounts of recyclable materials we can expect to collect, we can look at ways to increase the efficiencies of the processes. This will be critical to making this a statewide “green” initiative in 2011. Reducing shipping distances and increasing product density through tighter nesting, or by grinding the material prior to shipping, would significantly enhance the efficiency.