recycling

Plastic pot recycling: the latest

You may have heard that the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) recently brought in ‘taupe’ pots – actually a kind of bilious shade of grey – as an alternative to the ubiquitous black variety which can’t be recycled as sorting machines don’t ‘see’ the colour black.

Taupe pots use a polypropylene completely free of the ‘carbon black’ pigment, so sorting machines should be able to see them and recycle them along with other rigid plastics.

The work goes on to encourage garden centres and nurseries to take up the taupe pots: it’s always been a given that this is going to arrive on shelves gradually, as the current stock of black pots has to be used up first. Fast-growing plugs, like bedding, annuals and vegetable plugs should appear in taupe first, followed by perennials, followed by shrubs and trees which are in containers for longest.

So far Hillier have led the way by having its first commercial crop ready grown in taupe, Other growers are following; Waitrose already has plants in taupe pots on the shelves, and Wyevale Nurseries, Farplants and Bransford Webbs are among other names taking up the new pots. They will be more expensive (of course) but the (smallish) cost rises aren’t expected to appear on plant price tags till 2020.

But…

For the taupe pot initiative to succeed, they have to be not only recyclable, but actually recycled. And there’s the rub.

The British Plastics Federation says 79% of local councils recycle rigid plastic (often referred to as ‘pots, tubs and trays’) at the kerbside.

But trade magazine Horticulture Week took it upon itself to ring 70 local authorities and actually ask them whether they will accept plastic plant pots in kerbside collections.

61 of them – that’s 87% – said they would not accept plastic plant pots at all, whatever colour they were.

The advice is to drive your plastic plant pots to your nearest municipal tip for recycling there (as long as they accept rigid plastic themselves, and as long as the pots are not black, of course). For me, that’s a 1hr 20 minute round trip to Exeter. Which rather cancels out the environmental benefits of recycling the pots in the first place.

The HTA is now lobbying the government to put pressure on councils to accept plant pots alongside rigid plastic food packaging and take them for recycling.

But I can’t help thinking that this underlines the increasingly undeniable fact that recycling is not the answer. It is, at best, the least we can do: but it’s a half-hearted, lily-livered sort of an attempt to turn back the plastic tsunami which floods into our gardens each year.

Even recycled plastic still ends up in landfill or floating about in our oceans anyway: you can only recycle plastic 7-9 times before the fibres become too short and they are useless for recycling further. And that doesn’t even start to address the 70% or so of rigid plastic which is not recycled at all, by anyone, whether there are the facilities to do so or not. And that’s a lot of plastic: there are 500 million new plant pots manufactured every single year.

The only real solution is – as so often – the less easy one that requires real, genuine change. We need to find other ways of doing things which don’t use plastic at all – not even if it’s recycled. Wood, metal, paper, cardboard: materials which biodegrade at the end of their lives, properly, without harming wildlife or polluting our environment. That is the only real way out of this mess: anything else is just a sticking plaster covering more of the same old rubbish.

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recycling, Research

Where to recycle plastic #4: Pass 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 I 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!

 


 

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…

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.