Pots and trays are a staple of greenhouse production, but there are some fairly dynamic developments taking place in containers, both for growers and suppliers. We spoke with representatives from several of the industry’s leading container manufacturers to get their takes on the issues driving the industry in 2009.
Changing Customer Demands
When your biggest customers come to you with new requirements, it’s often impossible to say no, even when fulfilling them means big changes. That’s what’s happening now with some of the box stores requiring more specific labeling – in some cases, asking for barcodes identifying the genus of the plant in the container.
“Genus-specific labeling is challenging for us, and I think it’s even more challenging for the grower,” says Cal Diller, president of East Jordan Plastics.
“It’s going to impact us,” agrees Norman Belliveau, CEO and president of Summit Plastics. “Up until now we’ve been putting on the more generic ‘4 inch annual’ label and didn’t have to make it color specific, but now it’s changing. Somebody’s going to have to take on the responsibility to make sure that information is correct.”
The best solution at this point may be handling labeling at the grower level, Belliveau says. “The grower may need to get their own print-and-apply equipment. They might be running a couple thousand of one item, followed by another 500 of a different color, followed by 5000 of something else. If they ask the container manufacturer to custom label all these different designs, they have an inventory nightmare, trying to find the right pots and the right timing and the right sequence.
“I think they’re going to have to be more specific with a tag at the last moment, or some kind of label on the container,” he says.
Trends In Materials
Another challenge facing growers and container manufacturers alike is the pressure from retailers and consumers for “greener,” more sustainable materials. In a quest for pots and trays that have a lower fossil fuel footprint and don’t pile high in landfills, suppliers are leaving no stone unturned to find the container Holy Grail: an affordable and effective alternative to plastic.
Summit, for example, is experimenting with the PLA container, a synthetic polymer made from corn sugars, and another made from wheat starch. Myers Lawn and Garden Group is working with ANLA and USDA on a material made from keratin extracted from chicken feathers. Myers distributor sales manager Terry Robinson says he’s also seen a lot of interest in the company’s new line of containers made from coir.
To date, however, most of the sustainable products have minuses that go along with their pluses.
“If we could provide the same predictable result with an affordable material that can be readily recycled or decompose on schedule, certainly we’d be very interested,” says Wayne Hinton, president/owner of Rootmaker Products Co.
“Unfortunately, the market hasn’t shown it’s ready to pay the higher price for these materials, and until we address that I think these materials are going to be a small portion of what’s used in the greenhouse industry,” Robinson adds. “But the more we do with these materials, the lower the prices are going to become and they’ll get closer to plastic.”
Recycling & The Future Of Plastic
Despite all the talk about sustainable materials efficacy and economics dictate that plastic will continue to be the driving force in greenhouse pots and trays for the foreseeable future. Current plastics are generally more durable, work better with existing production machinery and processes, and are by some estimates two-to-three times less expensive than many of the sustainable materials.
“We have experimented with some of those other materials, but as of today we don’t feel like they have come to the point of being economically feasible, nor do they perform as well as the current plastic materials we’re dealing with,” Diller says.
With that in mind, along with the pressure to be greener, it’s no surprise recycling has gotten a bigger push in recent months. In fact, East Jordan Plastics has made it a part of its business. The company is working with some of its growers and their retailer customers like The Home Depot and the Meijer’s grocery chain to collect used pots from consumers and return them to be recycled in East Jordan’s own recycling facility. “We’re getting good buy in from a number of our current customers and new potential customers have come to us because we’re recycling,” Diller says.
Myers is looking more closely at recycling as well. “We were involved in a fairly extensive recycling effort in Canada, where we collected and recycled about 750,000 pounds of plastic” Robinson says. “And we’re in the formative stages of a pilot program at several locations in the Northeastern U.S. in spring of 2010.”
While container collection from consumers is picking up steam, working recycled plastic into the material stream for producing containers is, as always, a cost issue. When the price of oil – and thus the price of virgin resin – rises, recycled plastic becomes much more attractive. When prices fall, recycling becomes less so.
“There’s a price you have to adhere to to make it competitive so your customers will buy it,” Hinton says. “Recycling is good until it costs you money.”
“I think the cost of resin is going to continue up a little more and then stabilize,” Belliveau says. “I don’t think it will peak where it did a year ago, but I don’t think it is going to come down shortly, either.”