One word: plastics

As we contemplate the coming gardening season (and our annual plant sale), one aspect of modern gardening is hard to miss. Plastic is ubiquitous: bags of every kind of garden amendment, landscape fabric (ugh), tools, edgings, and of course pots. For the plant sale, we collect hundreds of pots, pretty much all reused (yay!), but we know that the ultimate fate of many of them is the landfill (boo!).

We are lucky enough to live in an area where our local recycling does accept plastic plant pots, but a little investigation reveals a disappointing reality. That is, much of our country’s plastic recycling is sold to “brokers,” who probably discard a lot of plastic that is unprofitable to recycle. In most areas, these discards are highly likely to include all those black plastic flowerpots. Apparently black plastic is very hard to recycle because it can’t be detected by most sorting machines, so there is no market for it. Fortunately, when we contacted our local Department of Environmental Protection, we were told that they can recycle the rigid black pots, just not the flimsy ones (like the material used in plug trays and market packs).

So the best thing we can do at the moment is to reuse those plastic pots, especially the flimsy black ones, as many times as possible. We are also lucky that two local native plant nurseries, Bona Terra and Earth Sangha, encourage gardeners to donate used pots; both try not to buy new pots. Bona Terra doesn’t accept everything, but you can consult their website  (scroll down!) for a handy graphic (with dimensions) of what they will take. Earth Sangha takes most pots but they prefer the larger ones.

Of course, with the plant sale in the offing, the club is currently gathering pots, not trying to dispose of them. But we may want to think about how to encourage or even help our customers figure out what to do with the pots after they remove the plants. We would probably rather have them return the pots to Bona Terra or Earth Sangha than send them to the landfill. Could we provide the information to our customers or even coordinate with the nurseries? Another option, though difficult (impossible?) to coordinate, would be ask customers to return them to us for next year. It’s something for us to work on.

In our individual gardens, besides recycling plastic pots when possible, we can also try to use alternatives to plastic. For instance, we can start seeds in egg cartons, plant fiber seed pots (like peat pots without the peat), or paper seed pots, and we can use planters made of fiber/cloth, metal, wood, and of course traditional ceramic and terra cotta.

On a wider perspective, we see encouraging efforts to develop biodegradable or compostable planting containers, using “materials derived from waste and organic biomass such as peat, cow manure, wood fiber, residual mushroom cultivation media, coconut fiber, banana peels, husks, palm oil fiber and straw.”* This is what will be needed to make the biggest difference.

Note to BCGC members: This blog post has been updated from the article that appeared in the October 2023 newsletter to reflect our county’s position on recycling black plastic pots.

* from: “Jaya, A.D. et al., Review on biodegradable pot: A new promising approach for sustainable agriculture,” AIP Conference Proceedings 2682, 030009 (2023); A copy is available here.