Eight Questions With Cal Diller

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Eight Questions With Cal Diller

It’s not easy not being “green.” With the spotlight on sustainability these days, companies that use plastic as a manufacturing material would seem to be at a disadvantage in the marketplace of public opinion.

But that doesn’t have to be the case says Cal Diller, president of East Jordan Plastics. Diller’s company, a family-owned horticultural container business in East Jordan, Mich., made the shift from wooden greenhouse flats to plastic bedding plant flats and inserts in the early 1960s. He says the affordability and convenience of plastics played a significant role in getting plant material to market over the last four decades, and despite the negative press, he believes plastic is still the best option available.

We spoke with Diller about the pressures of being a plastic pot manufacturer in 2008, the viability of recycling as a sustainability strategy, and the future of plastic at East Jordan Plastics. 

1. GG: One of the hottest topics in many industries today is the issue of sustainability. Is it tough being in the plastic pots business when there’s so much attention paid to being “green?”

Diller: The current environment is certainly drawing attention to the issue.

The home gardeners do most of their planting in the spring and then all of a sudden they have a lot of empty containers. It’s an imposition and it bothers them. They probably don’t think as much about the milk jug or the empty water bottle because that happens frequently but not all at one time.

They see the plant containers and don’t want to throw them out. That is understandable.

2. GG: How does the plastic container industry respond to the call for more sustainability?

Diller: With recycling and reuse. These days there are a lot of people saying, “We want something that’s compostable or biodegradable.” And there are endless types of things available–peat pots, straw pots, bamboo pots, rice pots, cow poop pots. You name it. A lot of them are very new, but all those things are out there, and they have their place in the market.

Plastics get a black eye with all the attention on sustainability, but there are still huge benefits to using plastic containers. They’re an easy and relatively inexpensive way to move plants in an orderly, disease-free way to the marketplace.

And it’s important to remember that many of those containers have already been recycled. That’s something more than a few people overlook. A lot of those plastic containers have already been through one or two life cycles in another product, or they’re the scrap from the manufacture of another product. Recycling of plastic horticultural containers is a process that we need to help consumers understand and promote. 

3. GG: So you see recycling as a way to make plastic a “sustainable” option for the marketplace?

Diller: Yes, we definitely do. We believe plastic is the most efficient option for growers and we want to see the industry do what it can to make recycling a viable option for our customers and our growers’ customers. We are as concerned as anyone else about being good stewards and want to see the best use of all resources. 

4. GG: Has East Jordan Plastics gone to using only recycled material in its containers in response to this?

Diller: A lot of the feedstock we use has been recycled resin to start with. Up until the use of more color going into the product, I would say that up to 90 percent of our raw materials were scrap or something that had been recycled from other industries. That percentage has probably dropped to about 80 percent today, not because we can’t buy enough scrap or recycled resin, but because we can’t buy enough in the right color.

Color has become such an important factor for our customers in marketing the product. Most of the regrinds and reprocessed materials we receive come to us already colored. Many of them are mixed together and many times all you can make out of them is gray or black. It takes a certain amount of natural resin to allow us to color it. 

5. GG: So what does the future look like? Do you see an increase in the amount of plastic horticultural containers being recycled?

Diller: Yes, we do. Over the last five years, we’ve seen dramatic increases in the cost of our raw materials. And that’s driven up the cost of the plastic containers the grower uses. Not excessively, but substantially. And as they fight to maintain their margins, they’re looking for less expensive ways to grow plants.

But as our raw materials costs have gone up, the higher prices have given recyclers a margin to work with. Used plant containers today are becoming a sought-after commodity for recycling purposes.

Prior to five years ago, there were points in time, as we had cycles of ups and downs in our raw materials costs, that it looked attractive to recycle horticultural container scrap. But, today it’s highly viable and I would be extremely surprised to see our feedstock costs ever go back to a level where a recycler could not make money doing it. 

6. GG: OK, so it’s viable for the recycling companies. You mentioned home gardeners. How do you get them interested? Does your company or the industry do anything to encourage them to recycle used plastic pots?

Diller: We haven’t been as active in that as we need to be. But, I think all of the awareness that’s out there now is going to have us a lot more active in that regard. The first thing I feel ourselves as manufacturers and our competitors as manufacturers need to do is to promote recycling.

Plastic containers are undoubtedly the most viable, least expensive container for marketing plants. We need some help from our customer and our customer needs some help from their customer in facilitating an infrastructure to get those containers recycled. 

7. GG: Is there a program that’s already in the works?

Diller: It’s still in its infancy, but we believe because there will be a demand for the scrap that is generated, it will become economically feasible for that to happen. The economics are being put in place for that to happen.

The cost of a pound of virgin resin is up three times over what it was five to seven years ago. That allows a significant amount of margin for a recycler to put their cost into that scrap to bring it into a usable state. 

8. GG: Does this mean you’re committed to plastic horticultural containers for the long haul?

Diller: Yes. We want to do things that are healthy for the industry. This industry has been good to us and it is our livelihood.

So we have our eyes open. I would say yes, we would be glad to look at alternatives to plastic, because first and foremost, we are a horticultural container manufacturing company. We do not look at ourselves simply as a plastics manufacturing company. We were in wood for the first 15 years of this business before we even considered plastic. That was a huge step at the time, but it was also a step that went hand in hand with the development of plant sales across the country.

We’re very willing to go in any direction that’s good for our customers as it relates to containers. That said, we believe the plastic container still has a large and important place in this market–far and away the biggest share of plant containers today. We believe it will have the lion’s share for some time to come.

Richard Jones is the group editor for Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center magazines.

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