Biodegradable horticultural containers predate plastic but are capturing fresh interest from growers, retailers and consumers. One company that has seen sustainability come full circle is Western Pulp in Covallis, Ore.
Starting with a bushel of old magazines and $250 for homemade experimental equipment, in 1954 Ralph Chapman was the first to bring fiber molded floral containers out West. Western Pulp’s current owners purchased the business in 1958 and now have operations in six states. Even back then, before the environment was a societal concern, Western Pulp was diverting tons of paper from landfills.
Paper mache floral lines transitioned naturally to nursery and greenhouse lines, because traditional florists also were growers. Product lines have since expanded to eco-friendly protective packaging for shipping. One growing customer base is wineries that ship bottles or wine direct to consumers.
The newspaper Western Pulp uses as a raw material is collected from households by charitable organizations and termed post-consumer. Other waste paper it uses, such as corrugated box trimmings, are preconsumer. Western Pulp’s recycled content is certified through Scientific Certification Systems’ (SCS) material content certification programs, including VeriFlora.
In the last 10 years, more biodegradable pots have debuted in the market made from rice hulls, coco fiber, straw and plastic-like substances derived from corn and wheat. These polylactic acid (PLA) resins can be composted.
Western Pulp’s Sales & Marketing Manager Jim Lee, who has been with the company 20 years, says the biggest market shift has been growers and retailers developing programs that offer consumers choices on a mass scale, while appealing to environmental sensibilities. Walmart, especially, is looking for eco-friendly products.
”Twenty to 25 years ago, the concept that growers would be told what variety and color to grow and what container to grow in would not have been well received,” he says. “Many grew the same crops year after year in the same pot. What has happened in the last five to 10 years is the sophistication of the market and consumers wanting choice.”
As box stores grew in dominance, independent growers and retailers used products like Western Pulp’s to differentiate. But it didn’t take long for the box store growers to differentiate and offer a mix of price points within their own lines–the “good, better, best” strategy we see in appliances and other goods. “We’re not the cheapest alternative, but we are competitive with coco and moss baskets and higher-end plastic,” Lee says. “Our fiber pots and baskets are positioned in the better and best tiers.”
Pot sizes have been trending larger. Twenty years ago, 10-inch was the most popular at Western Pulp. Now it’s 12- and 14-inch. The company has made a conscious decision to stay out of smaller pot sizes. “A gallon is our smallest. If you’re selling a bedding plant for less than a dollar, it’s hard to justify a fiber pot,” Lee explains. “We do make special Kraft paper pots for Bonnie Plants. Every year at OFA, growers say they want to buy small packs, but the bottom line is we could not make them for a price the market will bear.”
In smaller plants, Western Pulp has been making carrier trays for landscape-sized paper plugs–Ellepots and Fertis. The grower can put the plants in the carrier or retailers can set plants out for consumers to put in carriers.
Plastic Has Its Place
Lee does not view biodegradable and plastic lines as interchangeable. When it comes to pots and trays that will work in automated machinery, plastic is hard to beat. In fact, one grower told him that even if he received alternative pots for free, if they wouldn’t work in his machinery, he would not use them. Labor costs more than pots.
Plastic also is ideal for colorful branding programs. “Plastic is a wonderful product and available in raspberry red to lemon yellow,” Lee says. “What we offer is a different color palette and texture. Ours is the opposite of branding. We blend in and make plants look better. Consumers do associate paper-based products with recycling, the brown paper bag look. While PLA is compostable, it still looks and walks like plastic, even though it’s an organic material. Will consumers notice a difference 10 feet away?”
In the coming years, Lee expects to see higher standards for marketing eco-friendly products. The Federal Trade Commission is working on environmental marketing guidelines to address corporate greenwashing. “Some terms will go away because they are not definable,” Lee says. He expects the terms that are definable, such as recyclable, biodegradable or compostable, to be tightly defined.
Third-party certification entities will become more important to substantiate claims. “That’s why we’ve invested in SCS, a reputable third party, to look at our production,” he says. “If we make a claim based on science, that claim can actually be backed up.”
With so many products being imported, there’s a level of doubt and concern about what is in them, he adds. “We’re thinking globally but sourcing locally and can control supply. With our six locations, we have excellent service capabilities and take pride in offering American-made products that support our economy.”