Is Recycling The Only Answer?

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Is Recycling The Only Answer?

Whose responsibility is it to ensure horticultural plastics are recycled?

It’s a question plastics manufacturers, growers and retailers have batted around for years, but it’s a question that still doesn’t have a definitive answer. East Jordan Plastics is clearly the recycling leader among manufacturers, venturing into the business in 2008 with a recycling facility in South Haven, Mich. Other manufacturers, including The Blackmore Company, Dillen Products and Landmark Plastic, are following East Jordan’s lead in plastics recovery at greenhouse operations.

A number of growers have been progressive in plastics recovery, as well. North Carolina-based Metrolina Greenhouses, for example, recovers a remarkable number of plastic pots and trays from Walmart and Lowe’s stores. Most trays can be reused and are sorted by type, cleaned and checked back into inventory on shrink-wrapped pallets. The pots and trays that aren’t reused are taken to a nearby plastics recycler in Asheboro, N.C.

Independent garden center retailers, including Boulevard Flower Gardens and Strange’s Garden Center in Virginia, have also been recycling leaders. The two recently participated in a pilot project in the Richmond area in which 7,500-plus pounds of plastic containers and flats were collected.

Still, consumers expect our industry to do more with horticultural plastics to “green” the planet, be it through recycling or something else that’s publicly deemed “environmentally friendly.”

“Whether a plastic is made from agricultural oil or a petrochemical process, you still have to do something with it,” says Paul O’Neill, a manager of grower products and agricultural engineer at Beaver Plastics. “So what do you do with it at the end of the day?”

Other Solutions

If recycling isn’t the answer, perhaps manufacturers can find solutions on the front end of plastics production, specifically in new materials or additives. A.M.A. Plastics, for example, makes Al’s Flower Pouch, which is not a recyclable product. Al’s Flower Pouches are typically purchased from garden centers in small quantities, making consumers prone to pitch them into the trash along with other random items.

But the trash is exactly where A.M.A. Plastics wants its product to land, because an oxo-degradable film additive helps the product degrade when it reaches certain environmental conditions–such as those of a landfill.

Recycling Guidelines

What exactly should growers do before a manufacturer arrives to pick up plastics for recycling? Landmark Plastic offers a few pointers:

Upon collection of materials to be recycled:

1. Remove undesirable materials like wood, banding wire and excessive dirt.

2. Sort materials by type.

3. Palletize plastic products and stretch wrap.

Which Plastics Are Recyclable?

Polypropylene: Injection-molded containers, co-extruded containers, thermoformed containers, some transport trays, hanging baskets, decorative containers, injection-molded flats and plug trays. Polypropylene is stiff but still flexible plastic. Many products are shiny and tear resistant

Polystyrene: Thermoformed bedding plant packs and flats, transport trays, plug trays, pots, specialty packs and propagation sheets and square pot trays. Polystyrene is more rigid than polypropylene.

Polyethylene: Blow-molded nursery containers, from 1 gallon to 65 gallons. Polyethylene is very flexible and usually black in color.

“For us, the way you solve the problem is through oxo-degradability,” says Rick Bradt, managing director at A.M.A. Plastics. “We know it’s going to a landfill, so let’s make sure it at least breaks down in a landfill. The oxo film essentially becomes food for microbes. The microbes eat it and it becomes water and carbon dioxide.”

Another solution is to offer horticultural plastics that are designed to be reused by consumers year after year rather than tossed into a recycle bin after one year’s use. One product with such a design is the Weekender, a hanging basket with a removable liner. The hanging basket is made of polypropylene and is guaranteed to last consumers 10 years.

“Customers like the Weekender pot,” says Karl Eckert, the owner of Eckert’s Greenhouse and designer of the Weekender. “The Weekender is even priced differently because it is a lifelong basket and it’s a green product, even though it cannot be recycled.”

Plastics manufacturers are even looking at non-plastics as options to achieve the environmental friendliness they seek in products. Jiffy Products America’s CarbonLite pots, trays and flats are primarily starch based and reduce a manufacturer’s dependence on oil. And like Al’s Flower Pouch, CarbonLite products largely biodegrade in landfills.

“CarbonLite is clean, green and affordable,” says Rick Friedrich, Jiffy’s general manager. “It’s reducing carbon emissions through low energy production of the products. The materials we use to create the CarbonLite are carbon-absorbing products. We’re reducing the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere and, in theory, reducing global warming.”

Jiffy’s CarbonLite initiative is very much based on the front end of production. As a global company, Jiffy is concerned most with reducing global warming, reducing waste and improving consumer health. Recycling is one widely accepted way to achieve these objectives, but Friedrich questions whether plastics recycling is really the right thing to do.

“Recycling isn’t necessarily very friendly to the environment,” he says. “First, containers are manufactured and they’re heavily petroleum based. There’s a lot of dependence on foreign oil there. They go to the grower, then the retailer and finally the consumer. The consumer transports them back to a recycling center, and that takes gasoline. Recycling trucks have to collect them to take them back to the recycling center, and then energy is used to break down the process.”

Considering the carbon footprint Friedrich outlines, Jiffy is steering toward developing products that are degradable, biodegradable or compostable.

“I’ve found our industry puzzling,” he says. “We create so much beauty but we use so much plastic. Now, there are opportunities to make consumers feel good about buying their petunias and pansies in containers that are friendly to the environment.”

Changing Cultures

Still, the majority of manufacturers, growers and retailers see recycling as a good thing–or at least an upgrade from discarding plastics as trash. Growers are already recycling items like plastics and cardboard, and plastics manufacturers are largely doing the same.

Greenhouse Grower visited Landmark Plastic in Akron, Ohio, in advance of this report and found multiple examples of recycling, from regrind pellets used in Landmark’s thermoforming production lines to the dust that’s collected through filters and eventually sold as an ingredient for other products. We saw countless bulk skids, as well, that eliminate the need for cardboard.

“Twenty-five years ago everything was boxed and floor loaded onto trucks,” says Jim Frederick, Landmark’s national account manager. “Now, we are selling more items in bulk skids and bagged or taped bundles.”

Company cultures toward environmentally friendly practices have changed remarkably in Frederick’s time, as well. Cultures have changed, he says, because consumers demand it. But, he argues, companies and other entities must do more. Consumers must be educated that recycling is good, and additional avenues to recycle No. 5 and 6 plastics, in particular, must be provided.

“Recycling is getting better at the township level,” Frederick says. “There are Waste Management trucks now that have sections for cardboard and plastic.”

An Interesting Takeaway

In the big picture, horticultural plastics are just a sliver of all plastics in the waste stream. But even that sliver projects us poorly to consumers whose minds have shifted to more environmentally friendly options.

So perhaps the best place to start the conversation about horticultural plastics is recycling, and where the most horticultural plastics are consumed: the box stores

“If anyone can make recycling work in this country, it’s Walmart, Lowe’s and Home Depot,” says Samantha Ponting, Landmark’s marketing manager. “It’s one of our main talking points when we get together with the big box stores. Because of their large geographical coverage and ability to help educate consumers, they’re the ones who can really start to make a difference.”

Kevin Yanik is the former managing editor of Greenhouse Grower.
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