New Life For Old Plastic

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The concept of horticultural plastic recycling always seemed like a nice idea that was just too expensive to seriously consider. For manufacturers, recycled material was more costly than virgin material. For growers, collecting, sorting, transporting and storing used trays and pots didn’t really pencil out either.

Blooming Nursery builds and places collection depots
in retail customers’ locations to encourage consumers
to bring back their pots for recycling.

When the price of crude oil peaked in 2008, however, recycling started to get some attention. Fortunately for the industry’s heating bills those sky-high prices didn’t last too long, but the interest in recycling and reusing plastic trays and pots has remained. With rising interest from consumers and retailers in keeping plastic out of landfills, the industry is finding ways to make recycling a more common part of the greenhouse production cycle.

Get Everyone Involved
Volume is the key to making a recycling program a realistic option for growers. No recycler is interested in sending a truck out to pick up a single pallet of scrap.

Some greenhouses have found working with their retail customers is the key to achieving that critical mass of plastic.

East Jordan’s Recycling Takes Off 

It’s not just growers and retailers getting into the recycling game in bigger ways these days. Container manufacturer East Jordan Plastics raised a few eyebrows in 2008 when it announced it was getting into the recycling business. That effort seems to be paying off, however, with its South Haven, Mich., recycling plant now running at near full capacity, providing high-quality regrind material to produce new containers.

“We purchased the facility in late 2008 and were up and running with a single shift in March ’09,” says East Jordan recycling manager Nathan Diller. Interest from growers built quickly over the next 12 months, and by March 2010, the company added a third shift. Diller says the recycling plant is now running 24 hours a day, five days a week.

Some material comes from retail collection programs with Meijer’s and The Home Depot, but most of the scrap comes from growers. The company pays for #2, #5 and #6 plastics and collects material from growers taking delivery of East Jordan containers, as well as from non-customers.

The biggest challenge, Diller says, is transportation. Getting full truckloads of scrap is important.

“Consolidation is the key,” he says. “We get a lot of calls from really small operations that might only generate one or two pallets of scrap a year. If there are co-ops, or an operation that is willing to serve as a drop site for multiple growers, we can get truckload quantities consolidated and picked up a lot more cost effectively.”

Diller says his goal for this year is to operate the plant at full capacity: recycling upwards of 10 million pounds of horticultural plastic annually. “Since we went to the third shift, we’ve been on track to reach that,” he says. “As long as we can maintain that pace there’s no reason we wouldn’t add capacity in the future.”

“It’s clear to us that we need to help the retailers get their customers back in the store with the pots,” says Grace Dinsdale, owner of Blooming Nursery, in Cornelius, Ore. “Now we’re at the stage of figuring out how to get the word out to consumers so that happens.”

Blooming Nursery’s strategy is building collection depots to place at retail locations. The stands are constructed from PVC pipe and mesh bags. Signage and photos make it easy for consumers to see exactly what type of pots they can place in the bags.

“We supply the collection depot to interested customers who are willing to put it in a place where people might see it. It doesn’t work if you put it behind the store,” Dinsdale says.

2010′s effort was a pilot project for Blooming Nursery, but Dinsdale hopes to put out a lot more collection depots next year and bring back a lot more containers.

Working with retailers is a focus for one of the country’s largest growers as well. Metrolina Greenhouses, in Huntersville, N.C., formalized a program for plastic retrieval with its Lowe’s customers this year.

“We found a vendor that would take all of our dirty plastic for recycling and that really made it possible for us to do a lot more with our retail stores,” says President Art Van Wingerden.

Metrolina encourages the retailers to ask customers to bring their empty pots and trays in for recycling. The plastic is collected and sent back to the greenhouse facilities on Metrolina’s carts. A trial with 22 stores this year exceeded Van Wingerden’s expectations–so much so that the company plans to expand the program to all 250 of its Lowe’s customers next spring.

“One day this spring we got back 22,000 pounds of plastic. It’s a combination of the grower and the retailer working together that makes it work,” he says.

Boosting The Bottom Line
Recycling isn’t the only reason to bring all this plastic back. Being able to reuse some of the material helps keeps production costs in check, too.

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of encouraging your own employees to help. Iwasaki Brothers, in Hillsboro, Ore., for example, sometimes pays its drivers a five-cent bounty for collecting and bringing back any flat it can reuse, says operations manager Steve Ussery.

Take Recycling One Step Further

Lots of growers are sending old plastic containers to be reground and used in recycling these days. Iwasaki Brothers in Hillsboro, Ore., however, is working with Agri-Plas, an Oregon recycler that has the capability to take that process one step further.

“Agri-Plas does grind most of the plastic they get to sell as regrind, but they’ve also been working on a process that turns the plastic back into crude oil,” Ussery says. “There’s nothing left when you do it that way. There’s the oil, there are combustible gases that are burned off in the process and there’s ash that’s usable as a soil amendment of some sort that can be spread over a farmer’s field.”

One of the benefits of the process, Ussery says, is the process can use any kind of plastic.

Also, since the resulting oil already been refined once, it doesn’t have nearly the amount of impurities of normal oil right out of a pipeline, making it a more cost-effective material.

“If you’re paying a nickel for a flat that costs 40 or 50 or 60 cents to replace, you’re definitely coming out ahead,” he says. “We may get up to 60 percent of our flats back, and depending on how they’re handled we can wash and reuse them seven to 10 times.”

According to Van Wingerden, Metrolina reuses about 60 percent of its injection trays. It’s an important strategy for Blooming Nursery, too.

“We have always taken back flats and we have always sanitized and reused our liner pots. Unless it’s broken we try to reuse it,” Dinsdale says.

In addition to not having to purchase as many replacement trays each year, typically recyclers will pay growers for the plastic they provide. While it’s usually not a profit center for growers, it often helps cover handling costs.

“This isn’t a new business that we’re trying to generate profits on, and that’s fine with us,” Van Wingerden says. “It’s just something we think is the right thing to do.”

Dinsdale agrees. “This is really a sustainability issue. We’re not expecting a savings because the handling is significant, and there are some costs in putting the depots together,” she says. “We’re hoping the savings will cover the cost of the program. We’d be very happy if we were able to achieve that.”

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