Retailing Green: A No-Brainer

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Each year, the United States uses nearly 100 million tons of plastic. That’s a lot of non-earth-friendly material filling up our landfills. And unfortunately, most plastics take eons to decompose, and the risk of perpetuating disease keeps many nurseries from reusing plastic pots. It sounds hopeless, doesn’t it? Especially when plastic containers are all we, as an industry, know.

In a recent Today’s Garden Center magazine survey on recycling, our Revolutionary 100 Garden Centers gave us their two cents on this issue, which in the end left us with some priceless information. What follows are a few “revolutionary” recycling practices that may make getting caught red-handed in this green movement a good thing for your garden center.

Making The Most Of It

For a place that’s recycling “everything possible,” Herbly Wonderful of Batavia, N.Y., doesn’t mind reusing a variety of plastic pots, and neither do its customers. “Any plastic pots that can be reused are cleaned and sterilized for the following year’s production,” Tracy Gaus, owner of Herbly Wonderful, says. “This has reduced the amount we need to purchase by 50 to 75 percent most years.” Any broken or unusable pots are collected and taken to a recycling facility. The odd-sized pots returned to them are used, too. They’re saved for those rare greenhouse specimens and also make for excellent potted-up parting gifts for children on school field trips. Herbly Wonderful began its recycling program in 1999 to reduce trash output, cut costs with reusable materials and, of course, encourage positive environmental practices. When starting out, this “very rewarding program” had one main concern – sanitation – a concern that lost steam once Gaus found plant-disease carryover and timely cleaning practices to be non-issues. Besides plastics, the Herbly Wonderful staff recycles plant material for a variety of purposes. At the end of the season, leftover plant materials are saved for the following year, used to help make new plants or donated to the landscapes of local charities. Old, dried herbs and flowers are bagged as a potpourri mix for customers.

Missouri’s M.O.

The state of Missouri has a good thing going, especially with its successful plastic pot recycling program. The “Show Me” state’s botanical garden runs a Green Industry Collection for garden centers, landscapers, grounds maintenance and growers from May 1 to October 31. The plastic pots collected at various state sites are often used for other industry products, which include new cell packs, trays and landscaping timbers for retaining walls.

Colorado is another state that has seen an increase in recycling success, an increase that’s taken place in just a few months. Modeled after Missouri’s and Minnesota’s recycling efforts, Garden Centers of Colorado just began a pilot program consisting of 10 to 15 garden centers back in April. As a member benefit, this well organized program offers signage and recycling receptacles for plastic pots, trays and mulch bags. Beth Zwinak of Tagawa Gardens says the program is great for the environment, and it’s also an excellent public relations tool. “Our customers love it!” she says.

Visit www.epa.gov to learn more about state-specific recycling programs or call your local municipality or waste removal service.

Even as an avid recycler, Gaus and her staff are starting to feel the push from her customers to do more. Gaus explains, “The pressure now is to begin offering biodegradable pots for those customers that do not want to recycle for convenience of their lifestyle, but still want to feel they are helping the environment in some way.”

Reuse, Recycle And Retain …Your Customers

While starting up a recycling program for environmental reasons might be the politically correct thing to do for garden centers, more than a handful of our Revolutionary 100 survey respondents admit that having a program like that in place also helps retain their customer base.
Jennifer Schamber of Missouri’s Greenscape Gardens agrees. “It brings people back into the garden center to return the pots, and hopefully, they’ll find something they can’t resist on their trip back,” she says.

One way to ensure a burgeoning recycling program and repeat customers is to offer a credit for plastic pot dropoffs. Mesquite Valley Growers Nursery in Tucson gives nursery credit for any 1-, 2-, 5-, 7-, 10- and 15-gallon plastic pots. “We give the recycler a credit they can use like cash at the register for anything in the nursery,” says Mesquite Valley’s Cathy Bishop. For those who bring back cardboard and plastic trays at Boulevard Flower Gardens in Colonial Heights, Va., patrons receive a 15-cent credit toward their next purchase.

Northeast Ohio’s Suncrest Gardens is a bit more assertive in its recycling efforts. “We started several years ago to charge a deposit for our large plastic pots,” says Suncrest’s Julie Nan. They did this to offset rising costs in petroleum products, and to avoid passing these costs directly onto the customers. Depending on the size of the pot, customers pay a $10 or $20 deposit, and when they return the pots with a receipt, they receive their money back.

Paper Or Plastic?

Ellepots might not be the newest kid on the eco-friendly block, but they are quickly building up the reputation as a preferable alternative to the infamous plastic pot. Just ask Mark McWilliams of Copper Tree Designs, who says, “The use of the new Ellepots for annuals and perennials will make a big difference some day.”

Benefiting growers to gardeners and plants to planet earth, Ellepots are typically made from degradable, non-woven paper. One Ellepot supplier, Ball Horticultural Company, explains that their degradable nature is just one of the many reasons Ellepots’ stock is continuing to rise.

Available in a wide range of sizes, the Ellepots’ paper construction allows increased airflow for improved root systems. They also produce plants that root quicker and leave no plastic waste behind. Ron Dubena, greenhouse manager at Acorn Farms, agrees that Ellepots make for faster plant installation, cut back on a plant’s transplant shock and save on any cleanup efforts.

While these paper pots have a tremendous upside, one snag to a poly-to-paper transition may be cost. “While a lot of the market is still using plastic, it is tough to offer an eco-friendly product that costs more to the end user when they are trying to save every dime they can to continue to make a profit,” Dubena says.

The Ellepot switch is just one example of what’s to come for an industry evolving for the better and the greener. “We must all now become aware of the carbon footprint we make at home, in business and in our communities,” says Beth Simpson of Rolling Green Nursery. “Starting a recycling program is a no-brainer.”

Mihalek is a former Meister Media Worldwide editor.

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