Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nursery and Greenhouse - What Will Replace Plastic Pots

The following is an article from the University of Maryland on the trend to move away from plastic pots which are not biodegradable. This is because of an increase in plastic costs, the move toward a more "green" approach in the industry, and the need to keep plastics out of landfills.

Are Plastic Pots Dying Out?

There were several displays at the MANTS show in January featuring environmentally friendly pots. There is a rapid rush toward alternatives to plastic pots. Everything from pots made from chicken feathers, coir pots, wheat based pots and neem-based pots are being looked at as possibilities.

A real revolution occurred in the green industry back in the 1960s when cheap, lightweight, plastic pots caught on and growers were able to offer plants throughout the year. The plastic pots enabled mechanized production of plants. The problem has been that when fuel prices spiked in 2008 plastic pots became painfully expensive. A second major hurdle is how to re-cycle these pots that are often coated with dirt.

Plastic pots still have a lot of good points including the fact that they hold up very well for outdoor container perennials production, outdoor annual production systems and tree/ shrub production. They are tough and can take rough handling much better that some of the environmentally friendly pots now on the market.

The new environmentally pots still have a way to go to replace plastic pots but have no doubt the days of the plastic pot are numbered. Some people have experimented with thinner plastic pots that use less plastic, costing less money than standard pots. This reduces cost but is difficult to use with mechanized potting systems. Though they use less plastic there is still a problem with disposal of the pots after planting.

There is also a split between companies over which is more environmentally sound - producing compostable pots or making bio-degradable pots. Some feel that compostable pots really don’t break down unless composted in a commercial facility and rarely break down in home compost piles. Most of the bio-degradable pots can be directly planted into the soil by the consumer. The problem has been that the pots made of materials that are bio-degradable do not hold up well in the garden center when customers grab the pots by the lip. Manufacturers are developing ways to get around this issue with carrier trays made of materials like re-cycled paper or plant based plastic-like sleeves. The pots are marketed so the customer does not handle the bio-degradable pots until they get them home and plants the whole pot into the soil. This is an interesting development but it still means that a grower has to handle the bio-degradable pot very carefully to avoid breaking the pot apart. It does not lend itself easily to mechanized potting or handling.

At the MANTS show I asked a couple of growers what type of pot would interest their customers and which ones they would probably purchase. Garden center operators commented that a pot must display well and hold up well in the garden center. This is an absolute must. They also want a pot that can have a bar-code printed on the pot. Most said that environmentally friendly pots would sell well and customers are environmentally concerned about plastic pots. Garden center owners are very well aware that in 2009 people will be price conscious so the price of the environmentally friendly pot has to be competitive with plastic.

Production growers commented that a pot must be tough, not easily crushed or misshapen, lends itself to mechanized potting, and must be inexpensive. This is a tall order, and I did not see anything in the marketplace that fits all of these requirements at this point. Give the manufacturers a chance and I am sure they will meet this challenge. It may be difficult to transition out of plastic pots in 2009 because of the ailing economy but in the long run growers can expect to see more alternative pots enter the marketplace, and the pressure to rely less and less on plastic pots will increase.

Reprinted from the January 23, 2009 Greenhouse TPM/IPM Bi-Weekly Report from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, Central Maryland Research and Education Center

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