There are about 500 million plastic plant pots in circulation at any one time. Which? Gardening did a survey a few years ago and worked out that the average gardener has at least 39 (they clearly didn’t visit my shed: I’ve never exactly counted them but I must have hundreds in there).
Back in the dark ages, when I started gardening, almost every garden centre had a big box outside where you could drop off all your surplus plant pots, bedding trays and modules and if you wanted to, pick up a few you were short of to use at home.
Reusing your plastic pots, seed trays and modules is better than recycling them (because you don’t use the extra energy required to recycle old plastic into new). You make the most of a finite resource by using it until it falls apart, thus keeping it out of the wider environment and the oceans too for as long as possible.
It’s still not the whole answer: even if you do reuse plastic until it’s begging for mercy, it will eventually crack, split or get squashed by an errant wheelbarrow. So it will, inevitably, end up in the plastic waste food chain in the long run, which generally means landfill or albatross stomachs. Which is why (at the risk of repeating myself) it’s better not to have the plastic in your garden in the first place.
Still, when you can’t use all the plastic you already have, it’s good to have somewhere you can share your surplus. The only trouble is, these days almost all garden centres have stopped doing this and the big boxes full of random pots and trays have largely disappeared.
There are some notable exceptions: Haskins Garden Centres in Hampshire, Stewarts Garden Centres in Hampshire and Dorset, and Cleeve Nursery near Bristol (among others) allow customers to drop off surplus pots for other people to pick up and reuse if they want. Others, like Barton Grange in Lancashire, have struck up deals with local recycling plants.
However all the larger garden centre chains, as far as I can see, have stopped. The largest of them all, the Garden Centre Group (including Wyevales) stopped their pot recycling service in 2011. Dobbies and Notcutts were doing a ‘bring back your pots’ scheme till 2012; but these days Notcutts undertakes to recycle 75% of its waste without specifying what, and Dobbies has a stupendously vague ‘sustainability policy’ on its website which makes no mention of plastic at all.
For the Garden Centre Group, it was all about the difficulties in finding someone to take the surplus away. They recognised that the scheme was popular with customers but couldn’t find anyone to undertake the huge task of sorting the many types of plastic used to make pots before recycling them. These days, there are several options (I’ll be going into these more in part 3 of this series) – so I will ask the GCG whether they are reconsidering.
Another major group, Squires, is ‘holding discussions with suppliers’ over alternatives to plastic. That could mean anything, of course. I remember my local Squires in West Horsley, Surrey having a big box of pots outside the front, into which I would regularly skip dive for whatever I needed; I asked them why they took it away and they told me they became inundated with plastic pots nobody wanted, whereupon they were lumbered with the task of getting rid of it. You can sympathise; garden centres, after all, are meant to be selling us plants (well, mostly), not processing waste.
People do complain loudly and bitterly about the disappearance of pot recycling bins at garden centres. But the more I think about the whole idea of taking your plastic to the local garden centre, the more I think it’s not such a good thing after all. It’s easy, of course. But aren’t you just passing on the problem? There’s no guarantee that all the pots you take to the garden centre will be picked up by someone else and reused, of course.
And what happens to the ones nobody wants? Some garden centres do take great care and some considerable trouble over finding a company they know will recycle their customers’ pots: Cleeve Nursery, stand up and take a bow. Others join a service like ashortwalk which collects and repurposes rigid plastic for recycling – so again, you know it’s going to be properly recycled (this and other national pot recycling schemes will appear in more detail in the next bit of this series).
But can you really guarantee you know for sure your garden centre is recycling the pots which are left behind? I suspect this might be the reason why a lot of garden centres have now stopped collecting pots: because they are, on the whole, well run and principled places which care about the environment and don’t want to have to throw away all those pots either.
You may argue that it’s garden centres which create a lot of the plastic waste in the first place. But it isn’t, actually. It’s the suppliers who supply the garden centres: the wholesale nurseries and growers and international mass plant producers who send huge shipments of plants around the country, all in plastic pots and trays, to fill garden centre shelves. And the garden centres themselves don’t have a great deal of say in that, as there are precious few wholesalers (actually only one that I’ve found) who do supply in biodegradable pots, so if garden centres supplied only those plants they’d have very thinly stocked shelves.
The real irony is that plastics recyclers – the people who turn your plant pots into plastic garden furniture and the like – find it hard to get hold of enough rigid plastic for the products they need to make. So it’s not like there’s no demand for the things. It strikes me that the whole system needs sorting out and joining up somehow. It’s just that I don’t think garden centres are the ones who should be doing it.