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Where to recycle garden plastic #1: Council tips

After you’ve been gardening for only a short time you’ll find you begin to accumulate a little eddy of plastic pots, trays, compost bags and other detritus. A lot you can re-use in the garden: by far the best way of dealing with the stuff as it’s the most efficient way to keep it out of landfill sites and our oceans.

But the more you garden, the more pots you seem to have. They arrive on every plant you buy, people give them to you, and a lot of the time (compost sacks for example) you buy them even though you’d rather not. Once you’ve got through a few seasons the eddies have turned into tidal waves and you find you are drowning in more plastic than you will ever use.

The only possible way to stop this happening is to reduce the amount of plastic arriving in your garden in the first place, by raising plants yourself from seeds or cuttings, or sourcing your plants from nurseries and garden centres who use biodegradable pots or sell bare-root. This isn’t easy, though it is possible: I’m building a listing of places you can source plastic-free plants from, so more on this later.

In the meantime, of course, you’re stuck with the pots. Use what you can: but unless you want to turn your garden into a storage depot for plastic pots, you will have to get rid of the rest (promising yourself all the while that you will not replace them with more). And that means recycling.

You have three main options:

1: Council tips

Just under half – 49% – of councils in the UK offer a kerbside recycling service for rigid plastic – that’s plastic plant pots, trays and modules.

Lucky you if you live in one of those enlightened places: I never have. My local council doesn’t collect anything but clear plastic bottles, along with the other 51% of councils in the country.

Many small local tips can’t deal with them either as the only commonly recycled type of plastic is PET1 (the kind plastic drinks bottles are made out of) and most pots are PET2 (for a guide to which plastics are which in the garden, see here).

However larger tips will often take garden plastic – so it’s worth seeking them out.

Look for “rigid plastic” on the “what can we recycle” page on your council tip’s website. Friends of the Earth provide a very handy search tool on their website where you can find the nearest local tip to you which can take rigid plastic. Go to www.recyclenow.com/local-recycling, click on “where to recycle a specific item”, then click “plastic packaging” then “plant pots”. Click “continue” and it will ask for your postcode so it can tell you your nearest rigid plastic waste recycling centre.

They are not very numerous. In the whole of Somerset, Dorset and Hampshire I found just three, in Wimborne, Shepton Mallet and Andover.

My closest one is in Exeter, across the border in Devon (a county where almost all the tips in major towns seem to recycle bulky/rigid plastic: there is a lot of regional variation, it seems). This is a 56.8 mile round trip taking me about an hour and 20 minutes of driving plus time actually spent at the tip.

I am not sure how the environmental accounting works out, but it strikes me that you are undoing a lot of the good you are achieving by recycling your garden plastic by emitting that much pollution into the air as you drive there and back.

Yet another argument, it would seem to me, for reducing and eventually eliminating plastic from the garden rather than trying to use new plastic then recycle.

Anyway: I rang the nice lady at the Exeter recycling centre to ask what, exactly, they can take out of my garden.

She said there is no truth in the rumours that black pots are not recyclable whereas brown and green ones are; she said it really doesn’t matter what colour your pots are, black, green, pink or diarrhoea coloured, they all go in the same skip.

The pots have to be clean: so I’m afraid you must give them a quick dunk in a bucket of water first to wash off any excess compost. Time-consuming, but then you won’t be doing it forever as you’ll eventually be banishing plastic from your garden so you won’t need to. Right?

But what about non-rigid plastic: compost sacks, for example?

There is currently no facility for recycling these. They are made of polypropylene (PP 5 in the triangle) and therefore will have to go into the landfill skip along with the torn fruit netting and the polystyrene bedding trays. This is another one for my lengthening list of Things to Investigate Further: watch this space.

(Option 2 – taking your pots to the local garden centre – follows shortly…)

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Plastic-free gardening

Making a start

There you are, faced with the mother of all plastic mountains just inside your garden gate. You have gardened with plastic so long you have no idea how to live without it.

Yet you’ve watched the albatrosses choking and the poisoned whale calves on Blue Planet II; you know plastic is cluttering our seas and turning our beaches into rubbish tips. Besides, it’s kind of ugly. So you want to wean yourself off the stuff and find some prettier, more planet-friendly way to be.

But where on earth to start?

1: Stop buying new plastic

Take a pledge, like I did at the start of 2017, never to buy new plastic for the garden where there is an alternative.

2: Use up all the plastic you’ve already got

You’ll notice I’m not saying “stop using plastic”. Just stop using new plastic. Reusing the plastic you already have until it gives up from sheer exhaustion means you are maximising the amount of time it stays out of the wider environment. I have plastic pots in my garden which I brought with me when I moved to Somerset over 7 years ago and they’re still going strong (if slightly battered, these days).

3: Recycle your spent plastic… and don’t replace it with new

When plastic items (inevitably) crack or degrade to the point where you can’t use them any more they should go for recycling and be replaced with an alternative that is not plastic based if possible, or with recycled plastic where necessary.

4: Find non-plastic alternatives

This is not as easy as it sounds. There are alternatives: lots of them, from biodegradable plastic to bamboo, wood, clay, glass, metal… Not all are equally desirable from an environmental point of view, and some perform better in the garden (often better than plastic) while others perform worse. Mostly, I’ve not been looking for improvements: just non-plastic equivalents. I’ll be weighing them up one by one on this very blog.

5: If there’s no non-plastic alternative, find a getaround

There are some gardening tools and equipment for which I haven’t – yet – found an alternative that isn’t made from virgin plastic. On the list: Compost bags, fruit netting, insect-proof mesh, bubble wrap greenhouse insulation, build-a-balls and other support connectors. For at least some of these, you can get around the issue by simply finding a way of gardening that doesn’t use that product. I’ve stopped using bubblewrap insulation, for example, simply by not heating my greenhouse any more.

6: In extremis, use recycled plastic

I have much to say about recycled plastic, of which more later. It is not the panacea it is sometimes made out to be, and I would argue it is the bottom-most rung on the ladder to plastic-free nirvana, the absolute minimum you can do to reduce the amount of new plastic in your garden. But at least it’s something, and better than buying in new plastic all the time.

7: And watch out for uninvited plastic

By this I mean all the plastic which arrives in the garden by accident, as it were, without you inviting it in. Every time I do a planting job for a client I am lumbered with sometimes hundreds of 2 and 3 litre pots: new plastic I haven’t directly “bought” but which nonetheless are now adding to my garden’s plastic footprint. I will never use these pots: there are simply too many of them. It makes them effectively single use plastics – a real waste of the resources required to produce them.

And every time I mail order in plants, tools or just about anything for the garden they will be wrapped in single-use plastic film. I even ended up with a pack of biodegradable coir pots once which arrived beautifully shrink-wrapped in plastic, rather cancelling out the reason I’d bought them in the first place.

Plug plants are particularly bad, held in big PET2 rigid blister packs which cannot be recycled kerbside or even at my local tip (there will be more about the thorny issue of recycling garden plastic shortly, too).

So to tackle this tide of uninvited plastic, the only place to go is the supplier. I am actively seeking out wholesale nurseries who use only recycled pots (or better – but vanishingly rare – no pots at all). Garden centres are another behemoth to tackle: I have never even heard of one with a no-plastic or even recycled-plastic policy. If you know better, do tell!

And I will be finding mail order suppliers who use corn starch and cardboard for packing or who use plastic alternatives where necessary. This is quite likely to be difficult, if not impossible in todays world; so if you know of any specialist plant nurseries or mail order companies with a no-plastic mail order policy, please let me know in the comments below…

Research

The plastics in your garden

There’s a huge range of plastics in common use in the garden. Here’s the breakdown:

PET1: Polyethylene Terephthalate: marked with a 1 on the triangle. Very commonly recycled, can break down when exposed for long periods of time to light or heat.

Used in: Practically nothing in the garden. It’s the stuff drinks bottles are made of and too unstable for most uses as it breaks down to easily to withstand sunshine and weather.

HDPE: High Density Polyethylene (Polythene): marked with a 2 on the triangle: doesn’t break down easily, resists UV rays and very heat tolerant, coping with -100 to 80C – one of the most common plastics used in the garden because of these properties.

Used in: most black, brown and green rigid plant pots; seed trays; the containers you buy pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser in; insect-proof mesh

How to avoid: Use biodegradable pots; use wooden seed trays; make your own pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser from the plants you grow; and I am still experimenting with alternatives to insect-proof mesh. Calico is looking expensive, but promising.

PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride: marked with a 3 on the triangle. Used in plastic pipes and irrigation. Most contain chemicals known as phthalates, helping the PVC to be more durable, flexible etc. But phthalates are very harmful to humans.)

Use in gardens: hosepipes

How to avoid: rubber hosepipe might seem a good alternative, but many are synthetic rubber which is basically plastic. Better just not to use a hose: use a metal watering can instead.

LDPE: Low Density Polyethylene (Polythene): marked with a 4 on the triangle. Single use plastics used in things like plastic produce bags and bin liners. It came along after HDPE and shares many of the same characteristics – so very safe in a wide range of températures and doesn’t Leach into the soil.

Use in gardens: Single-use packaging around mail-order items

How to avoid: Buy from nurseries and garden centres or find a supplier who doesn’t pack in plastic (easier said than done…)

PP: Polypropylene: marked with a 5 on the triangle. Used in products that require injection moulding like straws, bottle caps, food containers. Not as tolerant to heat as HDPE or LDPE, generally safe for use with food and the garden.

Use in gardens: Some more flimsy plant pots (eg seedling modules); Horticultural fleece is made from woven polypropylene.

How to avoid: Use newspaper pots instead of modules; wrap plants in hessian and straw instead; or just avoid growing particularly tender plants.

PS: Polystyrene: marked with a 6 on the triangle. One of the most widely used types of plastic, but one of the most harmful to the environment as it breaks down very quickly into very small particles, and tends not to last very long.

Use in gardens: Bedding plant trays and packaging for mail order plants

How to avoid: Raise your own bedding plants, or buy from a supplier who doesn’t use polystyrene trays. Buy from nurseries and garden centres or find a supplier who uses biodegradable cornstarch packing instead.

Polycarbonate: marked with a 7 on the triangle (this actually means any plastic other than those listed above – but usually polycarbonate or polylactide). Polycarbonate is the most harmful plastic we have ever created: proven repeatedly to leach BPA (Bisphenol A) – shown to cause reproductive problems in animals and linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes in humans.

Use in gardens: Plastic non-breakable greenhouses and cold frames.

How to avoid: Use glass instead.

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How I got here

This website has been a long time in the making.

I have been trying to eliminate plastic from my garden for about a year now, after one day last January when I walked through the gate into my veg garden and realised all I could see was plastic.

It isn’t a material I love at the best of times: it is blaring, ugly, and messy. It an unattractive habit of splitting and splintering at the slightest excuse.

But then I stumbled across a video of albatrosses on Midway Island, in the Pacific Ocean, choking on bits of plastic that had broken up and floated into the ocean looking for all the world like little fish. Except they were lethal.

I hated that I had any part in this. That day I resolved to reduce and if possible eliminate the amount of plastic I use; and first in line was the place I use most plastic of all, in the garden.

Plastic is undeniably useful in the garden: and I have really, really struggled to get my use of plastic under control. In trying, I have discovered several things.

Not using plastic involves a different way of gardening. I refer back to Victorian methods when in doubt: after all, they gardened rather well without using plastic (though they’d have loved it if they could have got their hands on it, I’m sure).

Plastic isn’t always the best material, despite what they’d have us believe.

Plastic substitutes are better for the environment than plastic; but not much.

There are some things you can’t substitute: I haven’t found a sensible alternative to fruit cage netting, for example.

And some things are only available if you have a lot of time and a lot of room: I am still struggling to generate enough compost to make my own potting mix and therefore eliminate all the plastic baggery that comes with bought-in compost.

But I’m getting there: and it is a subject I feel increasingly passionate about. So much so, in fact, that I’d like to try to change things more widely in the horticultural world, if I can. So I thought I’d put together this website, sharing the research I’ve done and the methods I’ve developed, as well as spreading the word about people I know of who do sterling work cutting back on plastic use and trying to garden more ethically.

In time, I hope it might expand into a kind of one-stop shop for non-plastic gardening stuff, so it makes it easier for anyone who wants to to garden without succumbing to the plastic pox that’s infecting our gardens. But that’s all in the future.

For now, I’m just going to bang on about it a bit, and hopefully convince everyone who gardens that they don’t, in fact, need plastic as much as they thought they did. Care to join me?

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The video that started it all

Need a good reason to ditch the plastic in your garden?

This is the video that made me decide I couldn’t justify it any more, on any grounds.

I came across it after listening to a speech in 2015 by the wonderful Emily Penn. This inspirational lady had been doing something about the terrible scourge of plastic in our oceans long before I had even heard about it, and even longer before David Attenborough drew a watching nation’s attention to the issue in the wonderful BBC1 series Blue Planet II. That seems to have done the trick, mind you, and finally, at last, everyone from government downwards is sitting up and take notice.

Anyway, I was trying to find out a bit more about what I’d heard about. I clicked on this video, and what I saw shocked me to the core and broke my heart. I have never forgotten these images.

I warn you: only start this video if you are feeling strong. It is, quite simply, terrible to watch.

MIDWAY a Message from the Gyre : a short film by Chris Jordan from Midway on Vimeo.