Cutting Costs By Giving Back

Cutting Costs By Giving Back

Missouri Botanical Gardens’ Dr. Steve Cline created
a recycling program for consumers, retailers and greenhouses.

The idea of saving money while helping the environment used to be a bit of wishful thinking. However, with the price of oil continuing to rise, the latest trend popping up all over the country is plastic recyclers. This can open a whole world full of savings for the average greenhouse grower, who produces all kinds of plastic waste–from pots, flats and plug trays to greenhouse poly and irrigation tubes. The grower can achieve all these savings while preventing those plastics from going into the landfill to sit for the next thousand years.

Why It’s Important Now

The first question is why would you want to go through all the effort, right?

Greenhouse growers are always looking for ways to cut costs, rather than raise prices. If that is, indeed, the goal, then greenhouse growers can’t afford not to recycle. That’s a bold statement, but becoming more true by the moment. With the price of oil soaring past $90 a barrel–and by press time likely surpassing the $100 mark–recyclers are clamoring for all types of plastics to recycle and sell to manufacturers. Of course, petroleum is one of the main ingredients in all plastics, which means the cost of making and selling (and buying) plastic materials will increase unless reground materials are provided at a lower cost than “virgin” materials.

So how does this affect the typical greenhouse grower? With a plethora of plastic at his or her fingertips, the grower is in the perfect position to provide plastic materials to recyclers, some of whom pay for shipping and the actual product. It also allows the grower to reduce the amount of waste taken to a landfill, thereby reducing tipping fees at that time.

“If growers can put it (plastics) into the recycling system or deliver it to the recycling site, they will actually get some money back rather than pay to remove it,” emphasizes Thomas Dudek, district Extension horticulture and marketing educator for Michigan State University Extension (dudek@msu.edu). “I think that’s what one of the big incentives is–in some cases there is a financial incentive. Besides that, it’s really doing the right thing by becoming environmentally sound. I think some of the buyers are looking at growers and how sustainable they are, too.”

How It Works

We all know how recycling works. You sort your plastics, cardboard, glass, paper, etc., and the recycling truck comes to pick it up curbside each week (or you take it to a facility). But the process is a little different for a greenhouse, which produces far more waste than the traditional household (unless you’re talking about mine).

Dudek has set up an easy way for greenhouse growers in Western Michigan to pair up with recyclers and begin a program. He has created a list of recyclers in the area, detailing what they take and how they take it.

“You have to clean up your act if you want to market plastic waste, because they don’t want mud, soil and media–big clods of it–in the product,” Dudek explains about the recyclers’ expectations. “What happens in the processing of it, if it’s chopped up, it may be another contaminant. In the case of the stainless steel knives they’re using to chop it up, it may dull the knives. Knock out the pots, get the majority of the visible media out of the pots–you don’t have to power wash them.”

He adds growers should keep the poly film on a clean surface to keep it as dirt-free as possible when they roll it up. Dudek also recommends if the grower isn’t sure if the recycler will take that type of plastic, he or she should provide a sample to the recycler before collection.

Generally, it is up to the grower to sort the product at the greenhouse and either transport it to the recycler or have the recycler pick it up. Some recyclers only trade in certain types of plastic, while others take it all.

Dr. Steven Cline (steven.cline@mobot.org) works in the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and he has created a recycling program there for consumers, retailers and now greenhouse growers.

Cline adds that no recycler can make anything out of a mix of all the different types of plastics together, so the sorting process is vital to the success of the recycler and ultimately of the grower. Both Cline and Dudek recommend working with the recycler extensively to find out the best method for both and set up a system. Some recyclers will conduct what’s called a “waste audit” to see what materials can be recycled at the operation before the process even begins.

Programs Already In Place

Dudek and Cline are just two examples with resources in place for growers and retailers looking to recycle plastic products. They recommend checking first with any state Extension office, and next with the county waste district to see if there are resources for corporate recycling programs.

Cline requested and received a grant to begin the highly successful program at the Missouri Botanical Garden. It started when the 40,000-plus membership filled up the botanical garden’s parking lot with pots they wanted to recycle from planting their gardens. It snowballed to include retail garden centers, and now includes greenhouse growers, as well.

“What I’m trying to do is show everybody by example and show how it’s going to work,” he says, explaining that he now sends out trailers to garden centers to put in the parking lot for customers. The customers toss the right pots into the right container on the trailer, and when it’s full, the retailer brings it back to the botanical garden for unloading. He’s also had retailers collect pots from customers all summer and bring them in a semi to unload at the botanical gardens.

He adds the program is great for retailers, not only because they are helping the environment, but it’s just good business. “They see the environmental interest and excitement, but in a business sense it’s bringing people back into our parking lot and bringing money back in,” Cline says.

With the current green movement going on in this country, that can mean a different kind of green for retailers and growers.

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