Missouri Botanical Garden has been tracking and supporting plastic pot recycling issues and options for many years. This spring, we regret to report that public plastic pot recycling will not resume.
Wasn’t Plastic Pot Recycling “suspended” for 2020-21? Why is it being ended now?
The collection program did not re-start as usual in spring 2020, partly from early concerns about coronavirus transmission on plastic surfaces, but that was not the critical factor. The overwhelmingly big issue persists, that markets for recycled plastic remain depressed, globally, even for high-value types of plastic.
The kinds of plastic used to manufacture garden containers have a negative value in the recycling industry. The company that took over plastic pot recycling from the Garden in 2017 has been trying all market options, drawing on expertise of their 60+ years in the recycling business. The recycling industry is an economic system. If there are no markets wanting to buy and use a recycled material, collection programs become unsustainable. The whole cycle must be working for recycling collection to function.
We can recycle plastic food and beverage containers, so why not pots?
This is a really good question, with three main answers:
- The mix of plastic resins used to make garden plastic pots, trays, flats, and cell-packs includes some of the lowest-value types of plastic. These resins are cheap to mold into containers durable enough to support commercial movement of plants, but not suitable to re-manufacture into a next generation of useful items.
- Most garden plastic containers are black. The Material Recovery Facilities that sort and process the items accepted in our home recycling systems use sophisticated optical scanning equipment to efficiently sort the huge volumes of mixed plastic items we send to them from our single-stream bins. Optical scan beams can’t “see” through black plastic, so this equipment can’t sort garden plastic items in the same way it sorts bottles, jugs, and the other household plastic items we recycle at home.
- Dirt remains in most garden pots even when we dump them out. Our recycling industry service providers ask us to put stuff into our bins that is “empty, rinsed, and dry.” Soil residues will contaminate this material stream, endangering the recycling systems we rely on every day.
My local garden center had a pot recycling trailer. Will they still accept my pots?
The network of garden center partners has been one of the strongest contributors to this very
Sorry, no. Even if your favorite garden center still has a trailer parked on their site, please respect the fact that coordinated public plastic pot collection is no longer being offered in our region.
We appreciate all the effort that has gone into plastic pot recycling, from home gardeners and leaders of our locally owned garden centers that hosted plastic pot collection trailers. The network of garden center partners has been one of the strongest contributors to this very specialized local recycling program. The great idea that we could bring back pots to be recycled on a trip to get more plants was convenient for us and good business for these locally owned, trusted expert advisors on our planting choices. Through our national environmental and horticultural networks, the Garden continues to share the example of how our local pot recycling program worked, toward the vision of a new system that can make use of horticultural plastics.
Is Missouri Botanical Garden still accepting pots?
No, we are not. In 2017, the Garden turned over operation of the Plastic Pot Recycling program we started to an established local recycling company that has special expertise with plastics. This move made sense for many reasons. We transferred the equipment and system the Garden had evolved to a business we feel is the best possible local operator of this kind of special-waste program.
Downturns in the global recycling system, especially over the past couple of years, would have had the same – if not a much worse – effect on the program if the Garden was still running it, given the fact that we are a garden, not a recycling enterprise.
The staff of our EarthWays Center has continued to research and track these issues. The more we understand, the better we can contribute to sustainable solutions as opportunities arise, around our community and beyond.
What about alternatives to plastic pots?
This seems like a logical question, but it runs up against a tough situation. Plastic has become a reliable low-cost way to get live plants from growers to gardeners in top condition, through intensive handling and shipping systems. We need to think about the total costs of using a material that’s so “cheap” to make and use that its worth in recycling has dropped to a negative value. This is a key consideration for dealing with plastic pollution overall.
There are alternative efforts are in the works, for example:
- The Sustainability Committee of Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) reached out to us at the Garden in 2018, having learned about the recycling program we developed.
- APLD’s green leaders want to understand these issues and tackle options to reduce plastic waste, from the strength of their work across the horticultural industry. Read the white paper APLD produced to learn more about the issues surrounding garden plastic waste.
- APLD’s Healthy Pots – Healthy Planet initiative is mobilizing their national network of professional members to address garden plastic waste issues. Watch an interview with Marie Chieppo, author of the plastic pots issues report, at the link above.
- Plant production systems that don’t rely on plastic pots are working, though still on a limited scale. One of our region’s largest growers and plant wholesalers, Jost Greenhouses, has been using the Ellepot equipment and materials system, developed in Denmark, for several years. The Ellepot system produces plants in compostable wraps and reusable trays. Jost’s landscaping company customers experience a 30-40% efficiency in labor costs as they install these “potless” plants.
- On the Garden’s Horticulture team, Greenhouse Manager Derek Lyle continually works to cut plastic pot waste. Evaluating the kinds of containers needed led to streamlining the variety of pots used, which also facilitates re-use of pots in our growing programs. These shifts have cut supply costs, especially as the cost of plastic products has increased.
- Some local garden centers are trying plastic pot alternatives. Ask your favorite locally-owned garden center about these options – especially as you select native plants to grow biodiversity in your yard!
So what can I do with my pots?
You must dispose of garden plastics in your LANDFILL TRASH. This includes all plastic pots, trays, hanging baskets, six-packs and cell-packs. These kinds of items will be a contaminant in your household or single stream recycling bins, endangering the viability of that collection system!
If an item is not on the list of accepted materials for your community’s recycling program, it should NOT go into your recycling bin. Visit RecycleResponsibly.org for more details. Thank you!
Can I donate my empty pots to a community garden group?
Organizations like garden clubs may be able to accept and reuse plastic pots at some times of the year. We advise individuals wanting to donate plastic pots to search for community groups who might want the materials on apps like NextDoor, Craigslist, and Facebook groups.
Please make sure any potential recipient can use the kinds of pots you have, before delivering them, and dump out soil to prevent moving any pests. If you explore this option, be sure that feeling good about passing along your pots will truly benefit whoever agrees to take them.
Do keep some pots on hand for plants you plan to divide and share!
What else can I do?
- Educate yourself about plastic production and waste issues. View Story of Plastic, a documentary directed and produced by Deia Schlosburg, an alumna of Washington University.
- Be gentle with yourself as you deal with plastic issues. We know this is hard news to read. Our region has had a Plastic Pot Recycling option since 1995. Although the program persisted and evolved here, the fact that it has never been replicated elsewhere in the U.S. underscores the issues associated with this special waste stream, and with plastic waste overall. Consumer choices matter, but they are only one element in a complex set of issues.
- Enjoy your garden and let Nature’s wisdom refresh and sustain you!
Green Resources Manager, EarthWays Center