The Wonders Of Plastics

The Wonders Of Plastics

Landmark Plastic’s Jim Frederick recalls visiting a greenhouse operation 20-plus years ago and struggling to sell the value of plastics to a grower whose pots were all clay. But midway through the visit, a stack of clay pots suddenly tipped, slammed into the floor and sent broken pieces in all directions. The incident led to what may have been the easiest sale Frederick has made, as the grower converted his entire business to plastics afterward.

More importantly, the incident serves as a welcome reminder of the container options to which growers were once limited. It’s also a reminder of plastic’s ease of handling and its durability, two of plastic’s many advantages.

“There’s nothing better than horticultural plastic,” Frederick says.

Clearly, plastic is the most-used material on the horticultural containers front. But its role is slowly being challenged by materials like composted cow manure, rice hulls and straw. Many of these new materials are still working to prove their worth to growers, but there’s no question such alternatives at least pique grower interest.

Still, a world without plastic is one in which some growers arguably would not survive. Plastic’s affordability, at least compared to other horticultural containers, makes business more manageable. So fortunately, horticultural plastics probably aren’t going away in our lifetimes.

“Growers are very dependent on plastics because they need a cost-effective material to hold and transport the soil mix in order to grow plants cost effectively,” says Lars Peter Jensen, national sales manager at The Blackmore Company.

But what does the future hold for plastic? Will we use it at the same rate 20 years from now as we do today? Is it possible other materials will surface that are comparable to or even better than plastic? Let’s explore.

A Competitor’s Perspective

To Jim Lee, the marketing manager at Western Pulp Products whose business is built on molded fiber–not plastic–plastic is clearly the industry standard for containers. It’s a wonderful product, Lee says, that’s allowed growers to grow and ship products more easily. It also offers great flexibility in size and color.

“Plastic containers are a big factor in a plant program,” Lee says. “It’s almost like the chicken and the egg: The container becomes almost as powerful as the actual plants. I’ve had propagators talk about their programs and everyone talks out the side of their mouth that the pot’s more important than the plant.”

Comparing plastic to Western Pulp’s molded fiber, he adds, is like comparing a brick house to a wooden house: Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but both have a role in the industry. The ability to brand directly on containers, however, is one area in which plastic has an edge over other materials.

“Molded fiber is like the un-Cola,” Lee says. “We are kind of the generic-looking one. Sometimes people will say we’re not particularly attractive, but there’s another side in that we’re not distractive. I don’t know that the whole world wants to buy everything in a branded pot.”

Western Pulp does label some pots but, ironically, it puts a plastic band around them to offer full-color graphics and a bar code. Lee indicates technology is finally arriving that may allow manufacturers to print directly onto molded fiber pots. But even then he wonders if printing defeats the unique role his product and others play in the containers market.

“You have to be careful you’re not all things to all people,” Lee says. “I don’t envision it’s going to be ‘we get rid of plastics’ or ‘plastic is evil.’ I think the consumer is looking for options, just like in anything. Perhaps they want paper or plastic. Or organic or traditional.”

Karl Eckert, the owner of Eckert’s Greenhouse and designer of the Weekender plastic pot, sees a place for multiple container types, too. Eckert’s used to grow many of its 3- and 4-inch plant material in plastic, but it switched mainly to fiber pots five or six years ago because the communities around the grower-retailer were not providing curbside recycling.

“We were finding people were just throwing their pots in the landfill,” Eckert says. “After that, we said we’ll take that out of people’s hands and bring them fiber.”

Still, as a grower Eckert sees the value of plastic and can’t imagine operating without it.

“We’ve been in plastic for so many years,” he says. “Without it, we wouldn’t be as progressive. It’s brought us along at a much faster clip. I can see plastic evolving and us still using it a lot. But different things are going to be on the market.”

Issues With Alternatives

Still, growers will demand any new container materials conform to existing automation–or that new technologies be developed to accommodate new materials through automation.

“The number one issue for growers is labor,” says Rick Bradt, managing director at A.M.A. Plastics. “Growers are going to have to automate because of it. The other thing they’re going to have to do is propagate inside a controlled environment, which is a greenhouse. That automatically moves them to some form of automation.”

And when growers automate, they need standards. As Bradt points out, items like the Straw Pot don’t have accommodating automation. Maybe such items will be accommodated in years to come, but the automation must be there when new container types hit the market.

“Plastic really does offer the best solution at the moment,” Bradt says. “Do you want to use more energy, space, labor and equipment to move product around? Or do you want to make that more efficient? Containers and automation are tied together, so I don’t think plastic is the devil some people make it out to be. It may even be saving us from less-green issues.”

Lee has concerns with biocontainers, as well, and one of his biggest ones relate to recycling.

“Some of these bioplastics are a problem for the industry because if there’s polystyrene, polypropylene or other materials, there are some contaminants,” Lee says. “So you can’t recycle them.”

If manufacturers can find ways around issues with contamination, there’s clearly a market for biocontainers. Roberto G. Lopez, an assistant professor at Purdue University, conducted a study on longer-term crops like poinsettias and their performance in biocontainers like Summit Plastic’s Circle of Life pot, Jiffy’s peat pot and ITML’s coir fiber pot. As part of the study, Lopez asked consumers if they’d be willing to pay more for poinsettias produced in biocontainers. More than half (53 percent) indicated they would. A small percentage was even willing to pay between 50 cents and $1 more.

“Consumers are really interested in locally produced,” Lopez says. “For the industry, marketing something as locally produced within a city or a state is key.”

Worlds Collide

Although biocontainers are directly competing against horticultural plastics for a grower’s business, plastics manufacturers are the ones embracing biocontainers (or at least containers deemed “alternatives”) in many cases. Landmark Plastic, for example, is partnering with Jiffy Products America on the new, starch-based CarbonLite pot that reduces reliance on fossil fuels.

“We are in the business of providing growing containers for growers, so it is only natural, as with most products or industries, to offer options,” says Bob Merzweiler, CEO of Landmark Plastic. “We have experimented with many materials that can be utilized with our existing manufacturing processes. These have mostly been non-petroleum based resins that offer the potential for compostability or biodegradability, and in some cases lower carbon footprints.”

Jim Daw, director of operations at Myers Lawn and Garden, agrees.

“Our job is to provide our customers with solutions without bias to any specific material,” Daw says. “We are continuously searching for new and innovative materials and products that will provide solutions.”

But just because plastics manufacturers incorporate a few alternatives into their offerings doesn’t mean they’re abandoning their core product.

“Plastic packaging has been a very common and integral part of (grower) operations, and it’s been the best choice,” Merzweiler says. “It is very cost efficient, it transports to the growers well, it creates a good growing environment, it works well to ship plants and it is good for consumers to buy and take home plants. It serves many purposes for retailers, from marketing and display to shelf life. It is mostly produced from recycled materials and it is recyclable.”

Leave a Reply

More From Crop Inputs...
PP&L CAST 2015 intros

April 22, 2015

6 Breeding Companies Serve Up New Varieties At Pacific Plug & Liner

Pacific Plug & Liner’s theme this year, Labyrinth, a conservatory of the world’s most captivating plants, was perfectly topped off (pun intended) with fascinators for the women and newsboy caps for the men. The PP&L team dressed their part to act out the gothic “conservatory of the world’s most captivating plants.” Truly, the displays looked like they practically popped out of a catalog, and the costumes were a nice touch. Retailers take heed, the fully merchandised displays at Pacific Plug & Liner are worthy of emulating. We’ll let the pictures tell the story of all the fabulous variety introductions presented at  Pacific Plug & Liner’s 2015 California Spring Trials, where Cultivaris, Cohen Nurseries, Histil Nurseries, Jaldety Nurseries, Southern Living/Sunset Collection and Pacific Plug & Liner all highlighted their 2016 introductions.  

Read More
Speedling 2015 CAST intros

April 22, 2015

Speedling Inc. Presents New Varieties From ABZ Seeds, Hem Genetics, Thompson & Morgan, Vista Farms & PSI

You name it, we saw it at Speedling's California Spring Trials location in San Juan Bautista, where five companies showed off their new introductions for 2016.

Read More
PittMoss on Shark Tank

April 22, 2015

PittMoss Wins On Shark Tank

Mont Handley, president and CEO of PittMoss, appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank on April 17 to try to get the “sharks” to invest in his peat moss alternative. Three investors from the TV show contributed $600,000 to PittMoss for a 35 percent stake in the company. Check out this clip from ABC’s website in which Mark Cuban, Kevin O’Leary and Robert Herjavec discuss getting on board with the product. PittMoss is an alternative to sphagnum peat moss, made up of a mix of proprietary additives and recycled paper rescued from landfill space. Handley founded the Pittsburgh-based company in 1994. What started as a small experiment grew into a full-fledged business with the help of funding provided by an EPA SBIR grant and Pittsburgh’s Idea Foundry. Today, PittMoss is available to commercial greenhouses and nurseries from Michigan to Maine to North Carolina, with plans to grow. To learn more, visit PittMoss’ website, or check it […]

Read More
Latest Stories
Green Mum Basket

April 21, 2015

Growers Face Dilemma In Managing Plant Growth

Whether you’re applying plant growth regulators, manually pinching plants or using automated trimming, the most important thing is to find the right balance.

Read More

April 20, 2015

Three Michigan State University On-Demand Webinars Offe…

The first rule of effective insect and disease control for vegetables is to take action to prevent problems before they occur. But in order to do that, you need to have an effective pest and disease management strategy in place that incorporates best practices to ensure a successful outcome. Michigan State University offers three pest and disease management on-demand webinars that will get you started and keep you on the right track.

Read More

April 15, 2015

BASF’s Pageant Intrinsic Fungicide Registration A…

The state of California has approved the supplemental label registration of Pageant Intrinsic brand fungicide for disease control in the commercial production of greenhouse-grown tomatoes and tomato transplants for the home consumer market.

Read More
Egg card used for insect control in Parkway Garden’s retail area.

April 13, 2015

Biocontrols Use Requires Commitment

For some companies, a switch to biocontrols is an easy decision to make. Parkway Gardens of Ontario, Canada, began using biocontrols nine years ago after Erik Jacobsen, the company’s owner, wanted to expose Parkway, its customers and the environment to fewer pesticide products. “Many pesticides were increasingly ineffective, and in Canada, new product registration moves with glacial slowness,” Jacobsen says. “The labor cost of applying pesticides is much greater than using biocontrols.” In addition, it was also an opportunity to market the company’s eco-friendliness to a younger demographic, he says. In a Q & A with Greenhouse Grower, Jacobsen explains what biocontrols and methods have proved effective for Parkway Gardens Greenhouse Grower: In what types of greenhouse structures are you using biocontrols? Erik Jacobsen: Our greenhouses are all poly covered. About half the range is a Westbrook 14-foot at peak gutter-connected block, and the remaining half a mix of quonset-style […]

Read More

April 11, 2015

Lowe’s Announces Commitment To Phase Out Neonicotinoids…

Home improvement retailer Lowe’s companies announced April 9 that it has committed to eliminate neonicotinoid pesticides from its stores in a gradual phase-out over the next 48 months. In response, horticulture industry associations issued a statement that Lowe’s position is surprising, considering the most recent and positive reports on the state of honeybee health and recent peer reviewed research, and that this is an issue for which sound science must take priority.

Read More

April 9, 2015

Survey Snapshot Shows Biocontrols Mainstreaming

Have you incorporated biocontrols into your greenhouse operation? If so, you’ve got plenty of company. An anonymous online survey by Greenhouse Grower magazine in December 2014 of more than 156 ornamental plant and flower growers across the U.S. found 81 percent used biocontrols in 2014.

Read More

March 31, 2015

Manufacturers Are Taking Biologicals To The Next Level

Through acquisitions and new products, many crop protection companies are making firm commitments to the future of the biocontrols industry.

Read More
OxiPhos_BioSafe2

March 23, 2015

BioSafe Makes Label Changes To OxiPhos And ZeroTol 2.0

There have been some recent label changes made to the BioSafe Systems product OxiPhos, a systemic bactericide/fungicide that reduces downy mildew spores when tank mixed with ZeroTol 2.0.

Read More
Nufarm_logo

March 23, 2015

Nufarm Fungicides Now Registered For Use On Edible Crop…

Nufarm Americas announced label expansions for two of its fungicides that will provide more pest management options for the ornamental industry. The Cleary 3336 F and EG fungicides are now registered for use across a wider range of edible crops, including select greenhouse vegetables and transplants, herbs and backyard fruit.

Read More
ColeusDMLeafSporulation_Daughtrey

March 11, 2015

Research Gives Clues For Preventing Coleus Downy Mildew

Maintaining awareness of coleus downy mildew is more important than ever to safeguard these attractive plants for reliable garden performance.

Read More
Rose Rosette on Knockout rose, May 2013. Photo credit: Alan Windham, University of Tennessee

March 2, 2015

Rose Rosette Disease Fight Gets A Boost From Government…

In 2014, $4.6 million was awarded through the Farm Bill to tackle rose rosette disease, a devastating pathogen that affects one of the industry’s most important crops.

Read More
Fig 1 Leafy Gall On Leucanthemum Becky

March 2, 2015

How To Prevent Leafy Gall Before You Lose Plants

Leafy gall is a nasty disease that can go undetected until plant damage is done. Take these steps to protect your crops from infection.

Read More

February 17, 2015

A New Look At Biological Control: Can Plants Affect The…

The success of a biological control program depends on a number of factors including quality of natural enemies, timing of release, release rates and environmental conditions. However, what is typically not taken into consideration is how plants can affect the performance of natural enemies, including attack rate and searching ability. Biological control agents work hard to protect plants, but plants have ways to help themselves, too.

Read More

February 1, 2015

New Pest Control Products For Your Toolbox

Add one of these new insecticides to your IPM program for successful pest control.

Read More
IR-4_profile_Feb2015

January 29, 2015

IR-4: A Pest Management Resource For Growers

Almost 40 years ago, IR-4 (Interregional Research Project Number 4) began serving the ornamental horticulture industry, helping to facilitate the registration of pest management tools. IR-4 does this primarily by surveying growers about their pest management issues and then hosting workshops to review survey results and set priorities for the coming years. Most recently, IR-4 coordinated a meeting of researchers and industry members on pollinator health and neonicotinoid chemistries to start a discussion on the needed research. The next step will be to get the outcomes from that workshop out to the public.

Read More

January 28, 2015

Biocontrols 2015 Conference & Tradeshow: Peace Tree…

Lloyd Traven, a speaker at the upcoming Biocontrols 2015 Conference & Tradeshow, was one of the industry’s early adopters of biocontrols in the greenhouse. Traven, owner of Peace Tree Farm, is evangelical about the technology as an effective tool for resistance management, as well as improved plant quality that contributes to a grower’s bottom line.

Read More

January 27, 2015

Southwest Perennials Improves Production, Shortens Crop…

A father-and-son team find LEDs deliver a higher rooting rate for cuttings propagated under the lights.

Read More
Wainwright-web-620x349

January 22, 2015

Quality Control With Biocontrols

Make sure the shipment of beneficials that just arrived is viable and ready to go to work in your greenhouse, nursery, or field. Here are five steps you can take to ensure success with your biocontrols.

Read More