Plastic substitutes

If not plastic, then…. what?

So far I’ve been concentrating on what to do with the plastic you’ve already got.

But once you’ve taken the pledge not to buy any new plastic for your garden (and done your best to fend off the plastic that keeps trying to get back in) you still need pots, and seed trays, and hanging basket liners. So if not plastic, then what?

Smaller pots – anything up to about 7cm – are easy. You can make them yourself: save your loo rolls, make newspaper pots, or use a soil blocker. Small plastic pots and module trays were the first things I got rid of in my garden: I no longer use them as I find the alternatives so much better. I’ll be detailing how I did it soon on this very blog.

Larger pots, though, are tricky. You can’t make them yourself: so you have to buy them in. And most of the pots you’ll see offered for sale at sizes 10cm and above are plastic.

That’s not to say there’s no alternative to plastic pots: actually, there are loads, they’re just quite difficult to find. The stranglehold plastic has over the horticultural industry is loosening off, just a teeny bit, and most garden centres now sell at least some biodegradable pots. But if you look into it more closely, the choice is actually quite bewildering. I have found just under a dozen different biodegradable materials currently used as a replacement for plastic in gardening products. Here’s the list:

  • coir (coconut fibre)
  • miscanthus
  • spruce wood
  • bamboo
  • rice husks
  • straw
  • cow manure
  • starch
  • cellulose
  • cardboard
  • terracotta clay

Some of these sound like they might be the same thing, but nonetheless – it’s quite an impressively varied choice.

Why we are still using so much plastic when there are so many other types of pot out there I’m not entirely sure. Part habit, I’m sure; but also because biodegradable pots are definitely more expensive. This is mainly because most biodegradable pots, ahem, biodegrade; so they don’t last very long and need replacing each year as they are planted along with the plant. That’s not the case with all of them, though: clay pots are the obvious example of a long-lasting biodegradable pot, and there are others which claim a life of at least 3-5 years.

The clincher for me, though, and one that justifies the extra expense is that quite a few biodegradable pots are an improvement on plastic. When plant roots can breathe (as they cannot in plastic), when they can grow through a material rather than being forced to circle round and round (pot-bound plants are a thing of the past when you grow in many biodegradable pots), and most importantly of all when container and plant can go into the ground together with no need for root disturbance – that means a happier plant that’s more vigorous, healthier and quicker to establish in the garden. I can bear witness to this myself: my results, especially at the beginning of the year when I’m sowing, pricking out and transplanting hundreds of plants, have noticeably improved since I stopped using plastic.

Not all these advantages apply to rigid biodegradables like clay or bamboo, but you still keep some. I find when growing in clay pots that the plants seem to appreciate the increased exchange of air and moisture through the sides of the pots, and though they dry out more quickly they also wet more thoroughly than plants in plastic pots, as the clay absorbs the water as well as the compost. That means you don’t get that effect of water running down the sides between rootball and pot before draining out the bottom and leaving the roots as bone dry as if you hadn’t watered at all.

The more I grow in biodegradable containers the more I like it. But having tried a few different types in a rather haphazard way over the last few years, I’m also aware that they are not all alike. There’s a big difference between growing in a floppy coir pot and a rigid terracotta pot; and there are other considerations too. Rice hulls have a very different environmental footprint to cow manure, for example.

So I am going to be spending the next few weeks collecting together information about as many of the biodegradable alternatives out there as possible. I’m also going to get my hands on a few samples of the pots in question and put them through their paces. The result, I hope, will be the most comprehensive analysis yet of exactly what it’s like to grow your plants in non-plastic materials; which are the best, which don’t perform so well and which you should be using in your garden.

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recycling, Research

Where to recycle plastic #3: National collection 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. Next solution: passing it on…

Research

Where to recycle garden plastic #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.