In addition to labor woes and transportation debacles, growers collectively (and consistently) gripe about another category: plastics. The good news is that better pots and trays are just around the corner. Here, manufacturers weigh in on the latest trends and discuss the eco-friendly, cost-effective future of plastics, and reveal the latest and greatest products on the market today.
Going, Going Green
As the rest of the industry finds new ways to reduce its carbon footprint, plastics often get a bad rap for ending up in landfills and staying there for years to come. Luckily, plastics manufacturers are hip to the green trend. Many continue to explore biodegradable, compostable and recyclable options.
“The biopolymer technology is improving quickly,” says James P. Chittum, director of business development for Grow-Tech, who sees this as a promising move for the industry. “Right now, it’s more expensive, but the prices are coming down as these bioplastics become more available. As that happens, tray manufacturers and growers will be looking to integrate biopolymer technology into their operations.”
Another promising alternative to standard plastics is polylactic acid, also known as polylactide or PLA. Belden Plastics is one manufacturer that is testing this biodegradable thermoplastic made primarily from corn waste, and CEO Brad Johnson says the results have been impressive. In one test, he recalls 12-inch hanging baskets that lasted a few years and composted in five weeks. The result was slashed fertilizer costs and a labor savings from not having to pay someone to dispose of the plastic waste.
“Right now, PLA is more expensive, so it will be a niche product at first,” Johnson says. “As it spreads, the cost will come down.”
Johnson also noticed that the recycling trend has exploded among growers. One of Belden Plastics’ customers, for example, admitted to washing and reusing the company’s pots and trays year after year.
“The recycling trend is growing bigger than a lot of people realize,” Johnson says. “It’s big with our clients, and I’ll be damned if they pay more because of it.”
In addition to demanding greener pots and trays, growers are also looking for ways to save water and fertilizer with better liners and other water-saving technologies that keep the plants healthy at retail. Container manufacturer Pride Garden is one company looking to help growers on this front with its AquaSav Coco Liner. According to Courtney Schilgen, Pride’s product manager, these smart liners not only save water but also reduce chemical runoff and foster healthy plant root development.
“We expect and are prepared for our customers to demand more eco-friendly materials,” she says, noting that Pride also manufactures containers from natural woodland materials, glass, wood, fiberclay and fiberglass and more. “The demand for containers with better water-saving ability continues to grow and will influence our future designs.”
And conserving resources doesn’t stop at the grower level. Retailers, especially big box stores, want their growers to use pots and trays that help them conserve, too. Recently, WaterPulse partnered with Walmart and plastics manufacturers to modify trays. The goal was to reduce watering costs by watering the plants from below using WaterPulse’s capillary mats, as opposed to relying on wasteful overhead irrigation methods.
“Many of the manufacturers have made modifications to their containers to allow the containers to function well on WaterPulse capillary mats,” says Chief Operating Officer Mike Croy, “Pöppelmann and East Jordan have really taken the lead and have made major changes to several of their trays, and they continue to work with us to improve their products.”
At Southern Patio, National Accounts Manager Dan Van Rossen has also noted this development.
“Capillary style watering mats are becoming more popular and trays need to be designed with voids and bottoms for optimal contact to ensure proper watering,” he says.
All About Automation
It’s not surprising that many operations have attempted to cut labor costs by automating. While this is a relatively new trend, the pots and trays don’t always respond as well to filling machines as they do to the human touch. Finding a durable pot or tray in the ideal size is often easier said than done. Van Rossen says Southern Patio has tackled these issues in a number of ways.
“One additional place we are continuing to innovate is in the materials we use to make our planters. We have combined stone dust in resin mixes in our Enviroblend line,” he says.
“This material gives the customer a unique planter that offers style and durability, without the weight and cracking issues of traditional concrete or clay. For growers who use auto pot fillers, we can keep the design to correct dimensions to ensure the planters will fit auto-fillers and not slow up production lines.”
Southern Patio is also innovating in other ways that include creating hanging basket hangers that don’t require workers to align the holes with the automation equipment, or designing planters with channels and riser feet to accommodate growers who use flood-floor technology.
Being aware of this trend is important because many manufacturers predict it won’t be going away anytime soon.
“We’re seeing a quick and widespread increase in automation,” says Grow-Tech’s Chittum. “The large growers are all going toward automation.
This is good news for Grow-Tech because the company’s signature stabilized growing media was designed to integrate with large-scale automated transplanting.
Whether a grower is working for Walmart or supplying its local garden center, every operation’s needs are different. Plastics manufacturers report that their clients are beginning to ask for custom sizes, shapes and colors.
“As the economy gets better, we notice larger patio containers becoming more popular with our customers, especially in higher-quality materials like fiberclay and heavy rotor-mould plastics,” says Schilgen. “We’ve also capitalized on trends like refined rustic aesthetics and vintage upcycling. Pops of vibrant color among neutrals are still popular for us, as well as mixing materials — natural and industrial — in our containers.”
Another popular trend is high-gloss and decorative finishes. Southern Patio, which has a dedicated design team that focuses on developing products based on the trend relevance, has recently gotten into upgrading traditional wash finished on its pots. These decorative planters have been a big hit, says Director of Marketing Patrick Guillory, as they add to a patio or outdoor living space’s look and ambience.
“Our engineers are focused on functionality and creating optimal products for grower-style production,” he says.
“The products must fit growers’ needs and the needs at retail.”
For Pöppelmann, the customizable trend is focused on eye-popping colors and in-mold labeling that help set big box retailers apart from their competitors.
“They’re looking for exclusivity,” Jones says. “Bright colors are big in the marketplace, and I’ve even had one breeder suggest we look into glow-in-the-dark hanging baskets.”
According to Jones, it all comes down to one thing: branding.
“Everyone is looking for something to be a little different,” he says, listing the fact that all the big box stores have implemented their own lines of unique branded products. “In-mold labeling, which allows anyone to design their own label and have it molded directly into the pot, allows for a lot of flexibility. We’ve seen a good amount of interest when we’ve introduced this at tradeshows.”
Click here for more photos and information about new innovations in pots and trays.