For the last five months, I’ve been wondering what our industry can do to recover the plastic waste it generates and promote a more environmentally responsible image. It all began in June, when Beth Botts, garden writer for the Chicago Tribune, took our industry to task and even recommended gardeners reduce the number of plants they buy in plastic pots and start propagating their own plants from cuttings.
Just what our growers want, right?
More than half a million readers get the Tribune and the column was widely circulated in the industry, but we did not have an effective way to respond with a united voice to address this matter. Ed McConkey, president of McConkey Co. in Sumner, Wash., did write Botts a letter to present our industry’s side of the story through his experiences as a container manufacturer and distributor. So did Jessie Atchison on behalf of Ball Horticultural Co. and its environmental initiatives. But who speaks for our industry as a whole?
Whenever there are disparaging ads or news stories related to fresh cut flowers, the Society of American Florists jumps right on it and presents our industry’s side of the story. Who is telling our story related to sustainability? I’d like to see organizations like OFA and North American Horticultural Supply Association take a leading role. It could be as simple as creating a Web site we can direct people to for frequently asked questions related to our industry’s environmental responsibility and to showcase positive strides our industry is making.
There are things growers and their suppliers already do that are environmentally responsible and should be promoted, like conserving energy and recycling water. Emerging grower certification programs will be another way to demonstrate environmental responsibility.
On the supply side, I learned most of the plastic used to make flower pots is diverted from landfills. This isn’t common knowledge, but it should be! “We use millions of pounds of post-industrial and post-consumer scrap, but we’re still fossil-fuel based,” says Norm Belliveau of Summit Plastic. “We’re looking at different resins that are renewable and sustainable.”
He estimates 70 percent of the raw material Summit uses is recycled plastic and says that’s typical for most of today’s pot manufacturers, especially with petroleum spiking to more than $80 a barrel.
Plastics are our friends and have served the industry well for 50 years. All plastics are recyclable. It’s just a matter of recovering, sorting and cleaning them and getting them back into the right hands to be reused in manufacturing. I don’t think the answer is to abandon plastics but to expand recycling and find ways to make it cost effective.
Most recycling and garbage issues are local, and state programs may be the answer. In New Jersey, 10 growers recycled 3,320 pounds of polystyrene pots, 65,980 pounds of low-density polyethylene nursery film and 104,195 pounds of high-density polyethylene nursery pots this year through the state department of agriculture. The plastics were sold directly to a recycler. Instead of paying nearly $15,000 in landfill tipping fees, the growers generated nearly $8,000 in revenue selling the plastic.
Oregon has an agricultural plastic recycling center called Agri-Plas, Inc., which collects all types of plastic. While only 50 of Oregon’s 2,000 nursery growers are sending their plastic to Agri-Plas, they are diverting 80,000 pounds of plastic waste every week for the company to clean, chip and resell.
These are programs that could serve as a model for more growers.