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What the Plant Industry Is Doing About Its Plastic Problem

2015 09 29_0030

Empty plastic pots

First, An Ode to Plastic

Ah, plastic! It really is a miracle substance that is so much a part of our everyday life and so integral to the agriculture and horticulture industries, it’s hard to imagine life without it. The evolution of the container seems to have peaked with plastic. First there were animal skin bags and plant fiber pots, then ceramic bowls and jugs, then glass and then…plastic! It doesn’t break. It doesn’t smell. It’s lightweight. We can turn it into any shape we want.  And it’s inexpensive! We owe a lot to plastic.

However, as we all know, there is a downside. It is made from a non-renewable resource and the disposal of it is creating islands of trash in our oceans, mountains of waste in our landfills and a feeling in our gut that we can do better.  Our industry has a plastic problem, but the good news is there are solutions. Grow-Tech and many others in the industry are doing their part to reduce, reuse and recycle traditional plastics and to develop and support technology that can provide us with alternatives.

Hard and Soft Plastic

Grow-Tech, for example, makes a concerted effort to recycle whatever is recyclable be it wooden pallets, scrap metal or cardboard. We use hard plastic in the form of trays and stretchy plastic film for wrapping pallets of product. We also receive goods that are packaged in film. Disposing of each of these types of plastics, hard and soft, presents its own set of challenges. Let’s talk about hard plastics first.

Grow-Tech's FlexiMix® Growing Media in Large Plant Containers

Row upon row of plastic

Nurseries are among the biggest users of plastic but they also are the biggest recyclers. This may be because nurseries use more hard plastic than most farmers in the form of trays and containers. Most trays are made out of polypropylene #5 or polystyrene #6. These types of plastics are somewhat or very rigid and are accepted by many recycling programs. Additionally, some of the manufacturers of these trays offer their own recycling programs and will take back used trays.

FlexiTrays®

FlexiTrays®

Myers Industries Lawn & Garden Group will work with customers to coordinate a pick-up or delivery of Dillen Plastics trays to a local recycling facility. East Jordan Plastics has developed Project 100%, “…our goal is to spearhead a regional effort to ensure that all of the plastic used in making horticultural plant containers is recycled.” Blackmore and Landmark Plastics also use recycled plastics to make their trays and they both have recycling programs. The one downside to some of these programs is that a certain amount of plastic is required before it can be recycled which may prohibit smaller growers from taking advantage of the service.

Plastic film, sometimes called stretch film, is much more difficult to recycle and many facilities will not accept it. While there are options for disposing of most types of plastic, these options are not available to everyone everywhere. They are also not very practical for businesses that are crunched for time and watching where every dollar goes.  However, we are at a point in time where the bottom line can’t be just about dollar signs. More and more businesses are seeing that the foundation of their business must include support of the environment and community as well as their bottom line. It’s exciting to see how this new attitude is encouraging the same ingenuity that developed plastics to create new options for packaging.

Industry Efforts to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

In the September issue of Greenhouse Grower, an article entitled Manufacturers Weigh In On Popular Pots, Trendy Trays highlights a water saving hanging basket made largely from a fiber called jute and a decorative pot that includes stone dust as an ingredient. A European company called Solidus Solutions is working on a tomato box constructed with tomato fibers.  Plant pots are being made from a variety of substances from cow waste to plant fibers.  In this month’s issue of Grower Talks there is an article about the results of biocontainer trials performed at Iowa State University. Click here to read more about the design and materials used in the trials and which pots work best in various growing scenarios.

Microgreens growing media by Grow-TEch

BioStrate Propagation Felt

A New Kind of Plastic

Another trend in plastic alternatives is bioplastics. These are substances made from plant based feedstocks that look and act much like petroleum-based plastics. They are often compostable in a commercial (not home) composting facility. Grow-Tech has been working with and developing this technology for years. In 2014 we launched a new product, BioStrate Felt, a tray liner for the propagation of microgreens and salad greens. It is made from a blend of natural fibers and a biopolymer. Any waste product created in the manufacturing of BioStrate can be reused so there really is no waste. These examples of plastic alternatives are just a few of the growing number that are out there.

Share Your Plastics Story With Us!

Grow-Tech, a member of Biobased Maine, is passionate about developing new technologies that make our products better and reduce our environmental footprint. Do we use petroleum based plastic? Absolutely! It works and, at this point in time, it is often our only available option. We are a business and we are always watching our bottom line, but like so many other companies in our industry, we are also doing our best to move the needle of sustainability in a positive direction to provide all of us, producers and consumers, with viable alternatives to plastics. Please share with us on Facebook what you are doing to address our industry’s plastic problem!