May/June 2012

Recycling Plastic Pots

By Joene Hendry

Resourceful gardeners find ways to use the best and sturdiest empty nursery pots that seasonally collect in the garden, garage or shed. Some become decorative pot liners, small storage bins, or are passed on to friends; others are filled with transplants to trade or share. But, because many plastic pots are stamped with recycle symbols, they often end up in the recycling bin.

However, the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) advises NOT putting nursery pots and trays in recycling bins, and the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (CRRA), which handles recycling in about 70 Connecticut towns, does not accept black plastic or any type of plant or flower pot for recycling. In fact, both of these agencies suggest gardeners either reuse these plastics as often and as much as possible, or return them to the point of purchase.

Since there is no industry- or state-wide guideline consumers can follow for returning used plastic pots and greenhouse trays, each garden center, nursery, and plant seller establishes their own practice.

Plastics used in the nursery industry can be recycled if they're coded 2, 5 or 6.

About 10 years ago, the Connecticut Nursery & Landscape Association (CNLA) looked at the feasibility of an industry-wide plastic recycling program, says Executive Director Bob Heffernan, but their grant-supported investigation identified a number of impediments to recycling horticultural plastics.

One impediment is contamination. What gardeners lovingly refer to as soil is considered dirt in recycling circles. Dirt wreaks havoc on the sharp blades that slice piles of plastic pots into small, easier-to-process pieces. Some recyclers reject horticultural plastic because much of it is created from recycled material which accounts for its black color. It is also difficult to establish convenient, non-offensive locations for collection of used plastic pots, flats and trays.

CNLA's feasibility study did find, however, that individual major nurseries could better negotiate with horticultural plastic recyclers than could large cooperatives, Heffernan noted. This is exactly what is happening in Connecticut today. Many large wholesale nurseries now accept plastic pots from their garden center customers and return them to recycling companies that specifically accept horticultural plastic.

For example, Imperial Nurseries in Granby developed a fee-based service for participating garden centers. Imperial provides a large container for collecting used plastic pots, will pick up filled containers, and leave an empty replacement. The Cheshire site of Griffin Greenhouse & Nursery Supplies will also, with an advance agreement and notice, take back empty, separated, and stacked nursery pots from its wholesale and retail customers. Other wholesale nurseries have similar programs.

Many used pots from Connecticut's large wholesale nurseries end up at APC Recycling in Killingworth. Company representative David W. Wright, Sr. says that most of these plastics become new agricultural supplies.

To be accepted by a company such as APC Recycling, pots and flats must be free of caked-on dirt and separated by their recycling code. Plastics coded as 2, 5 or 6 are stacked on individual pallets and secured with straps or plastic wrap prior to shipping. Some of the larger nurseries use balers -- large machines that prepare used plastic pots for shipping. Nurseries that take on this commitment hope to recover some or all associated collection costs by selling the plastic to the recycling company.

Smaller garden centers and plant retailers, without wholesale-supplier recycling arrangements, deal with used plastic pots in many ways. Asking, at the point of purchase, is the only way to stay on top of each business' policy from season to season. Some welcome back any used pots. Some only accept used pots that contained plants from their own establishment. Others accept returns after the spring planting rush, and some only take pots back at a customer's request. Returned pots are then washed, disinfected, and reused or, sometimes, donated to garden clubs or schools. Those not reusable simply end up in the waste stream.

Garden center owners recognize the need to, and environmental value of, recycling plastic pots but doing so requires space, time and labor; premium resources for smaller businesses. To improve recycling efforts, these plant retailers may need help from customers and each other.

As customers, we can ask that local plant retailers accept back used pots and send them for recycling. To minimize associated labor costs, Wright, of APC Recycling, suggests retailers ask customers to return only clean pots, and assist in separating and stacking returned pots on pre-labeled pallets made available for this purpose. Then, through coordination, nearby garden centers and plant sellers could share the collection and shipping of all collected pots into a single trailer-load.

"Recovery is where it's at," Wright notes. We now recognize the downside of burning and burying recyclable waste. He adds, with the right customer education and collection set-up, recycling nursery and greenhouse pots can be a win-win for everyone.

More Information

To learn more about the garden center and nursery recycling programs mentioned in this article, contact:

Imperial Nurseries, Granby, (860) 653-1647; ask about the Container Recycling Program

Griffin Greenhouse and Nursery Supplies, Cheshire, (800) 888-0054, ext. 80413 (summertime only, please); ask William Page, branch manager, how to set-up and coordinate recycling.

For retailers only: APC Recycling, Killingworth, (860) 663-1112; ask for David Wright

Joene Hendry is a gardener and writer. As a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional and owner of Gardens & Turf, she offers garden design, coaching and maintenance to homeowners in the lower Connecticut River Valley. She's a member of the Connecticut Horticultural Society and chronicles her gardening experiences at Joene's Garden.