Where to recycle garden plastic
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.
2: Garden centres
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.
3: National recycling schemes
I got quite excited when I heard that there were people making a business out of going round collecting surplus plastic pots from garden centres.
What a great match. Manufacturer seeking recycled plastic to make stuff seeks garden centre with customers looking to get rid of plastic mountain: everyone’s a winner.
Except…. as it turns out, it’s not that easy.
There are two main companies who have tried this, as far as I can see: and both have come unstuck.
Ashortwalk is a Cornish company (the name comes from the fact that it is “a short walk” from the sea), founded in 2003 by ex Dyson designer Daniel Dicker. It is the company behind recycled plastic Ecopots and also makes recycled plastic plant labels, plant holders, bird feeders, sundials, house numbers. Recycling depends on people actually buying the recycled products too, so i would urge you to take a look at what’s on offer – a lot of it is really very funky stuff.
It didn’t take Dan long to realise there was a massive unused resource sitting about in garden sheds which he could tap into. We all see our garden pots as a nuisance; Dan sees them as raw material.
“Old plastic plant pots are not collected,” he says. “They have no value. They are light, but shipping is expensive; they are just not viable for recycling. But, if you create a product that uses them… well now it is financially viable to recycle this product.”
So he set up another company, Pot to Product, to collect this resource. The idea is that garden centres sign up, customers offload their plastic pot surplus to the garden centre, and Pot to Product comes along to pick them all up and take them to Cornwall and turn them into more pots, bird tables, plant labels and sundials.
Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, global economics has put its great clumsy boot in it and kicked it all to smithereens. I spoke to Chris at Ashortwalk, who told me the value of recycled plastic is at an all-time low, just at the time when the cost of diesel to transport it from garden centres to Cornwall has risen to an all-time high. It is, quite simply, more expensive to collect it than the recycled plastic is worth.
He said China’s recent decision to stop taking in the world’s rubbish has played a part too: labour costs in China are low, so they can afford to sort the many different kinds of plastic you get in garden pots and trays. UK labour costs are (relatively) high: sending the price of collecting, sorting and recycling garden plastic up even further.
Officially, the scheme is ‘suspended’: but it will take some fairly major economic upheaval to change the maths.
The other company that has dabbled with the idea of collecting plastic pots for recycling is Axion Recycling, a Manchester-based company which specialises in turning the steady stream of waste we pour out of our homes and lives into new stuff. Mainly, they recycle cars; but in 2011 they trialled collecting and recycling plastic plant pots. The scheme was along the same lines as Pot to Product: they teamed up with garden centres across the North of England and went round collecting surplus plant pots to take back to the recycling depot. It seems to have been short-lived: I can find no reference to it beyond 2011, and I haven’t (yet) been able to find anyone in Axion who can let me know how it went. I suspect it may have fallen foul of the same problem: the economics simply don’t stack up.
And that’s it. National schemes are just too difficult to be a practical solution. So the only option for our poor garden centres is to go to the trouble of setting up their own bespoke deal with a nearby plastics recycling centre (if they are fortunate enough to have such a thing) to collect customer’s pots. It’s not impossible, and some have – the garden centre in the previous post, for example.
But it’s hardly core business for garden centres, and it’s a problem not of their making in any case. So it seems unfair to demand that they.pour resources into recycling: better, surely, to put those resources into pressuring their wholesalers to use recycled (at least) or biodegradable (ideally) pots instead.
Back to the drawing board, then.
4: Passing it on
So far I think I’ve established that your ability to dispose of the plastic in your garden responsibly kind of depends on where you live. You may be in the lucky 49% of the UK whose council collects rigid plastic from the kerbside. Or you may have one of the UK’s rare plastic recycling plants in your neighbourhood, in which case your local garden centre may have set up a pot collection scheme in partnership with them.
Unfortunately neither of those applies to me: so I’m stuck with trundling 30 miles along the A30 to Exeter and back to visit my nearest big city tip if I want to recycle my surplus pots.
Unless, of course, I avoid recycling them altogether and just pass them on.
My stockpile of plastic pots is perfectly serviceable: there are just too many of them (especially since I moved to non-plastic alternatives). So I began to wonder if I could find other gardeners who could use them instead: allotment holders, perhaps, or community gardeners, CSA volunteers and the organisers of school gardening clubs.
I started with an ad on Freecycle, there are other swap communities too where you can advertise unwanted but useful stuff, like Freegle and Preloved (though this last is mainly for buying & selling second-hand, it accepts ads for free stuff too.)
It was the second or third time I’ve tried this, and the results this time were much the same. A little flurry of responses: three, on this occasion. Followed by… well, basically nothing, as nobody turned up when they said they were going to.
Perhaps it’s just where I live. Or perhaps community gardeners are far too busy to do things like logging on to Freegle in the hope that someone will be advertising pots today. Anyway: as a strategy for tackling the teetering piles of plastic pots in my garden this is hit-and-miss at best.
So, I thought, perhaps I should take my pots to needy gardeners rather than waiting for them to find me. The first people I thought of were community, school and therapy gardens. Only trouble is, it’s hard to know where to start in getting in touch with them to find out whether they could use the contents of my shed without the time-consuming fuss of ringing round each and every one.
Enter…. the Free Pot Swap Shop!
Actually it’s not a swap at all really (I just liked the name and Noel Edmonds was an indelible part of my childhood). It’s just a place for anyone who wants to get their hands on other people’s pots to let other gardeners know about it.
As soon as I’ve collected a few responses I will start a page on this website with a list by county of any organisation or individual who is willing to take donations of used pots, trays, modules or any other gardening equipment.
After that it’s up to gardeners with donations to contact the organisation to arrange a drop-off.
If you are interested in receiving donations, please fill in the form below. Alternatively you can get in touch with me on Twitter (@sallynex or using the hashtag #gardeningwithoutplastic).
If you are interested in passing on your pots click on this link and you will find a list of gardening orgnanisations who want to get their hands on youI will post a link here and more prominently on the website as soon as the page is up.
Please clean donated pots first and make sure they are in good working order. Thank you!