Plastic was introduced as an incredibly flexible and adaptable material but has soon become one of the biggest environmental threats we now face. It's estimated that there are around 500 million plastic plant pots in circulation each year here in the UK. The issue is not with plastic as a material but the lack of recycling and throw-away culture. Most of this plastic ends up in a landfill, being incinerated into the atmosphere or making its way into our oceans. Is there a better way we can garden to help reduce this threat? I've been doing some undercover investigations, well as covert as a mohawked garden designer can be.

So it turns out that life with plastic really ain’t that fantastic after all. Not given how little of it in the gardening world can be recycled and most of it ends up in landfill filling our earth with fragments of plastic that will take hundreds of years to fully break down. Ask any mindful gardeners and their sheds will have their own hoard of plastic pots waiting to be reused. The worst case is they end up in the general waste as recycling centres can’t accurately pick them out of other plastic waste due to their black colouring.

This is not a new problem by any means. Plastic pollution was first publically acknowledged in the 1970s when amounts of plastic where being found in marine studies. This pliable material has now become a burden and us gardeners know this only too well with our reliance on plant pots for both growing and sourcing new plants for our gardens.

The recent legislation on charging for plastic bags and film coverage from the BBC’s Blue Planet series & Gardeners World has once again brought the issue of plastic pollution once again onto the social agenda. We can’t just brush it under the carpet, or flush it out to sea. So what are the alternatives to the traditional black plastic plant pot? How likely is it that we can reverse this devastating trend for plastic?

What are the alternatives to black plastic plant pots?

As a garden designer, I all too frequently encounter a sea of black plastic plant pots. Nearly every single plant that I can source here in the UK is dispatched in some form of black plastic container, no matter what size the plants. There is no alternative offered at this point, to reject this as the plant container would be the kiss of death to my work. Given the fact most plants are sourced from a number of nurseries there would be no easy secure way to transport them to the client site, alive that is.

The issue is not necessarily the fact they are plastic but seems to be the colour of the plant pots. The black plastic carbon pigment used in black plastic cannot be easily detected by most recycling centres. It is then ejected from the conveyor belt and treated like general waste, shredded and ending up in a landfill.

A sea of my own black plastic from only one garden design

Taupe Plant Pots by Aeroplas

One manufacturer has started to create Taupe coloured plant pots, these beige pots are being touted as the progressive step away from black plastic. These light buff coloured pots are able to be selected with the infrared sorting process which identifies the carbon-free polypropylene from the conveyor to be recycled with other plastics. The manufacturer has committed to creating 700,000 of these in 2019 which a number of garden centres and supply chains are going to start to use.

There are also grey pots being manufactured by Desch using recycled plastic. The grey colour also allows for easier detection by local authority recycling.

A sample of grey Desch detectable plant pots

A great first step, but remember our starting figure of 500 million in circulation each year?! Other critics have claimed that the cost difference will put off many suppliers as this will then need to either be absorbed or passed onto the buyer.

In direct contrast to the cost issue, a study in Purdue in Michigan State University, 2010, showed that consumers would opt to pay up to 69 cents, around 50p, more for a plant that was contained within a recycled or recyclable plant pot rather than plastic. There are more interesting details of this study here. I think that the cost issue could be overcome if the story of why the consumer may be paying a little bit more is clearly articulated.

Either way, the new taupe plant pots will involve higher consumer costs and will certainly take some time to fully roll out. It’s a great first step but like any large industry, practice will take years to fully implement.

Can councils even recycle coloured plant pots?

Research undertaken by Horticulture Week and reported by the spearhead of Gardening Without Plastic, Sally Nex, have uncovered that a staggering 87% of those councils that could recycle plastic plant pots won’t. No matter what colour the plant pots are. So there’s a huge discrepancy between the reported figure of councils that do recycle ‘plastics’ which doesn’t necessarily mean they recycle ‘plastic plant pots’.

Obviously, not all plastics are the same but its worrying that a closer look reduces the changes of even coloured pots down to only 13% of councils that currently offer plastic collection. To put that another way, even with coloured plant pots incomplete circulation and black plant pots removed, at present only 13% of potential recycling schemes will be able to recycle them. Which means we need a completely different mindset to address this problem.

Biodegradable plant pots

There’s also the concern about planters that we use for decorative purposes. Although these have a much longer life before they are disposed of the same issue still arises; what do we do with them when it comes to recycling? Even terracotta pots can’t currently be recycled properly here in the UK so it’s not just an issue with plastic, its nearly all plant containers.

One recent innovation is the creation of Bamboo fibre pots such as the Greentones range of recycled and biodegradable plant pots. These pots are created by using recycled bamboo products such as scaffolding poles, mats and chopsticks which are then bound with an organic resin to create a stable material. Once this is discarded it breaks down within 3-5 years in landfills. They are stable enough to house a plant but when surrounded by moist earth they slowly breakdown leaving no visible trace after 5 years. So even if our recycling centres don’t adapt and these pots are sent to landfill the ultimate outcome is a positive one.

Biodegradable Bamboo planters will break down in landfill in 5 years

Roundwood of Mayfield sent me some of these products to have a closer look at.  They offer a range of bright almost dayglo pots, a far cry from the terracotta and muted tones in garden centres. I was a bit sceptical as to their stability when I first read about them. The best way to describe them is that they have almost a matt feel a bit like the old original bakelite plastic. They are really tough compared to black plastic, you cant crush them and from their feel will survive far more knocks in the garden. The only drawback is they only come in small sizes at the moment, however, they would be great for patio or balcony planting especially with their bright colours.

Other forms of biodegradable plant pots

  • Wooden pots and trays – Potentially rot and get mouldy depending on your garden hygiene, I use these myself
  • Coir (coconut husk) pots – Drains to quickly and doesn’t rot down easily, carbon footprint can be huge in transporting them
  • Paper seedling pots – made out of newspaper – great for home propagation but tend to break down too quickly unless planted out
  • Toilet rolls – again great for seedlings like peas that don’t like root disturbance as they can be planted straight out. Have a habit of starting to mould though if humidity is too high.
  • Bio-degradable Plastic – Breaks down leaving microplastics, back to square one.
  • Cow manure and other animal waste pots – Quite good due to breathability, however, can lack stability

Another important point to mention is the CO2 or carbon footprint of plant pots. Whilst you may find biodegradable ones for sale, where have they been manufactured and shipped from? If not careful we may end up replacing one problem with another by importing containers from the other side of the world.

I’m not sure these biodegradable pots will ever take the practical place of plastic for propagation and transport reasons. They are not stable enough or are too expensive for the mass market.

Personally, though, I think this is a positive step for garden planters, that the products eventually will break down easily. A combination of these with a change in the point of sale pots would tackle the issue on both fronts. It’s important to now discuss the issue of mass-produced plant pots for point of purchase. That is the options for a consumer when buying a plant that’s going to then be planted. Which brings us onto the next plastic-free warriors, the independent nurseries and growers.

Alternative Plastic Free Plant Pots

There have been a number of smaller nurseries who have taken the problem into their own hands in finding immediate solutions. Rather than wait for the industry to start changing the colours and materials of pots these brave few are creating their own. Helping to cut plastic usage directly with the consumer. The champions of the early adopters. I’ve been speaking to two of the most exciting.

The Posipot by Edibleculture

Edibleculture is a nursey, garden shop, display garden and teaching space down in Faversham, Kent aiming to bring both education and inspiration to local gardeners. Whether it is selling a variety of fruit trees, providing a pruning service for new homeowners inherited fruit trees or locally produced GYO delights they are really putting themselves forward as part of the solution. David & Chris who run this engaging enterprise has set themselves the target to become completely plastic free by 2019.

The Posipot can be planted out as it is and will break down quickly in the soil

They aim to do this with their Posipot which all their plants will be transplanted in when purchased. The Posipot is a brown card pot, secured with a small wooden stick that has a layer of Mycorrhizal fungi placed in at the point of sale. For those scratching there head, it’s a fungi that helps roots via the exchange of moisture to the plant in return for sugars, a truly reciprocal relationship. There is no adhesive or plastic used. The entire pot breaks down quickly into the earth.

The customer can then simply plant out the entire thing and within about 2 weeks its started to break down. Meaning zero waste and minimal fuss for the consumer. Now, this is obviously a temporary housing solution for a plant, but it does encourage people to carefully consider the footprint of their plant purchases.

Bluebell Cottage Gardens Plastic Free Plant Solutions

Sue Beesley at Bluebell Cottage Gardens has been pioneering a plastic-free solution to both her nursery and online sales of her wonderfully unusual perennials. The great thing with Sue is she is a pragmatist and always looking to provide a solution. The team at Bluebell offer customers paper bags for their purchases and also offer to decant the plants from their plastic pots, which are then washed and reused, taking the plants home in a paper bag instead.

The mail order offering is slightly trickier due to the need to protect these beautiful plants against a potentially turbulent journey. Sue commented “For mail order, we offer the option of ‘plastic-free’ delivery.  We take the plants out of their pots and re-use them. Wrap the plants in waxed paper, stuff the box with wood wool and crumpled newspaper and that’s it. We’ve also gone over to stick on labels, rather than stick in labels as this produces a lot of hard plastic waste.”

Robust and completely biodegradable packaging at Bluebell Cottage Gardens (Ps that Sanguisorba is a total must-have plant!)

Both the Edibleculture’s Posipot and Bluebell Cottage Garden are trailing the way for solutions that work right now, rather than waiting for the industry to catch up. I’d highly recommend a visit to either of their nurseries to view both their plants and great recycling alternatives to plastic pots.

How does Garden Ninja avoid plastic in the garden?

When I’m propagating plants at home from seeds or cuttings I always use my wooden trays for smaller plants. Not only are these reusable but they’re far more breathable than plastic, which I find leads to fewer issues with mildew and other greenhouse problems. Yes, they are a bit harder to clean, I tend to rinse and use a stiff brush. They also look much nicer than cold thin plastic.

I even used one of my wooden seed trays at Chelsea to show environmentally friendly propagation methods along with Terracotta

For larger seeds or specimens I either use terracotta, again more breathable/porous if possible. Failing that a reused black plastic pot if none of the above is available or suitable. I’ve even used yoghurt pots, aerosol lids and old paper coffee cups sometimes. When I run out of pots and simply must plant those new seeds.

Since I started investigating alternatives to plastic its shown that there are a number of solutions out there. Although I’m not going to be able to completely ditch plastic for my designs, there is hope that coloured alternatives are coming down the line. In the meantime, I’ll be reusing as many plant pots as I can in my own garden and asking suppliers if plants I need for designs can come in a coloured pot instead. It’s clear we need a complete shift change in the supply of plants and our consumption of them. Considering either growing from seed, buying bareroot during Autumn or taking our own containers to nurseries.

There has to be a better way to address the issue of point of sale plants than plastic?

In terms of buying plants for my own garden, I’ll certainly be visiting independent nurseries taking my own clean plastic plant pots along to decant them. That way they can reuse the plant pots as well helping to reduce the footprint. Just like the move away from plastic bags, I think if we all started taking our own pots then maybe nurseries would start to accept this as common practice. Even if the solution is not entirely here yet, we, as gardeners, can make small steps to push it along.

We need your help to find a better way

Would you take your own pots next time you visit a nursery or garden centre? Do you have your own plastic alternatives? I’d love to hear from you and raise awareness of this hugely important issue. Why not tweet your replies using #Gardeningwithoutplastic to start the revolution of alternatives.

Why not TweetFacebook or Instagram me with your suggestions.

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