Perspective: Jack Shelton, Poppelmann Plastics USA

Although Jack Shelton started out as an engineer designing airplanes and manufacturing packaging, it was his career in horticultural plastics that really took off. His journey began in 1975, when he and his wife became grower-retailers in Georgia because they loved plants. They learned all they could from more experienced growers and attended classes.

“One great thing about this industry is greenhouse owners and growers were always happy to help colleagues, even though they were going to be competition,” he recalls. But after seven years, they decided to close their operation and work in the industry, so they could have their weekends back and even take a vacation.

Shelton became a sales manager representing OS Plastics, which is based in Denmark, for 19 years. In 2000, he began working with Poppelmann Plastics in Germany with the goal of establishing a manufacturing facility in the United States. Today, the company has 110,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse facilities in Claremont, N.C., dedicated to making thermoformed and injection-molded horticultural pots. Shelton just retired as president of Poppelmann Plastics USA.

GG: How has consolidation impacted the plastics segment? What are the pros and the cons for the grower?

JS: There certainly has been a lot of consolidation in the past five years and sometimes it worries me a bit. I do not like the fact that investment companies are buying large segments of our industry. They are in business to make money and put their well being in front of the industry. If an investment company decided to dump or take apart one of its large holdings due to lack of profit, there’s a chance our industry could not manage very well.

GG: What are plastics manufacturers doing to keep costs down for growers?

JS: I cannot speak for all plastics manufacturers, but at Poppelmann, we continue to design pots and trays that are utilizing less plastic raw material, as well as working with applications and machinery that continue to be more efficient. We also work as much as we can with recycled raw material and operate zero-waste production in our facilities. From what I can see, other plastic manufacturers are doing the same.

GG: What’s going on in raw materials?

JS: The cost of material continues to go up, but we are hoping for some relief and downward movement in the summer. It is always a supply-and-demand issue with these plastic raw materials, and as oil prices go up, the material prices will follow. Many plastic raw materials are now coming from other sources, but producers still take the opportunity to raise prices.

GG: In your time, what would you say some of the unsung accomplishments of plastics manufacturers are?

JS: Many people do not think about it, but the best thing plastic manufacturers did was go from thick, heavy pots to thinner pots with less plastic weight in the product. Over the past 25 years, Poppelmann has reduced the plastic weight more than 60 percent, and this is a great savings for the grower.

Plastics manufacturing companies also have developed good customer service operations and to support growers’ needs. In the early days, we would get a call from growers and hear they have soil, young plants, fertilizer and chemicals for their crops, but just realized they need pots to grow these young plants. Could we get the pots to them tomorrow? At Poppelmann, we are glad to manage the growers’ needs with forecasts and projections, and we offer them a regular report so they can better manage their pot needs. This is more important today with the added need of printing and labeling, which must be scheduled and cannot be shipped next day.

GG: What are the differences between the North American and European markets?

JS: Standardization and not selling plants by pot size, but by quality, have long been a difference in European markets. What I see as the biggest difference is how they market their product in the retail centers. In small nursery centers, as well as large chains, plants are marketed much better and are maintained in a greenhouse condition until the end user has made the purchase. Attendants are trained in how to care and maintain the plants during their stay in the retail centers. The climate is controlled to the particular plant’s need, and care is managed expertly as if they know what they are doing–and they do. I’m not saying anything bad about our nursery centers and retail chains, but they could learn greatly from the European retail centers about marketing. You would not see plants sitting in the parking lot or in direct sun without water when they are a shade plant. That would increase sales to the end user and for each grower and vendor.

I’ve always felt everyone does a great job putting quality into our plants, and then when it gets to retail, it is always excused to abuse and not give the plant what it needs to maintain quality. If we could make this one change, everyone would enjoy more plant sales and more profit.

GG: Does the plastics segment do enough to tell its story on sustainability?

JS: I agree 100 percent we do not get the message out to the consumers enough or at all. Most plastic manufacturers are very sustainable in their use of material, their operations and their continued care to make their operations grow in a sustainable direction. We look at this in everything we do at Poppelmann down to our manufacturing, even office waste and utilities use.

GG: What are the trends with bioplastics and alternatives to plastic?

JS: Bioplastics and alternatives are improving but I do not believe they are quite where they need to be for horticultural use. There are still some heat issues with the material and segregation in the use, along with several other areas. We continue to study this product at Poppelmann and will possibly bring it into our production for horticulture when we feel it is right.

GG: Any observations related to recycling programs post consumer?

JS: Until we can get the garbage companies involved, no program is sustainable. Plastic recycling must be done on a local basis in each community and each state. We must not make a larger carbon footprint with our collection. The horticultural industry must get the plastic associations involved. This would mean all the horticultural plastics companies coming together. Retail chains could also bring size to the movement.

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