Sustainability and recycling leading pot development

It’s not very often that a television programme can genuinely be said to have changed the world, but the BBC’s Blue Planet II, with its various images of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, shone a spotlight on the use of plastics throughout society, writes Richard Crowhurst.

However, the resulting public and political outrage and the sometimes knee-jerk reaction that all plastics are bad, has caught producers, retailers and packaging suppliers off guard as, in many areas, new materials and technologies try to catch up with the demand for non-plastic alternatives. Commercial plant production is no different, with everything from polystyrene bedding packs to re-usable planters now under the spotlight. Many growers, both large and small, are looking for most sustainable packaging solutions, with Lovania Nurseries being the latest high-profile plant producer to commit to converting all of the plant trays supplied to Aldi from recycled PET material. The ultimate aim is to reduce the amount of non-recyclable packaging supplied to the retailer by 200 tonnes a year.

Not surprisingly, growers, buyers and consumers are confused as different companies offer different potential solutions, from recyclable plastics through to compostable materials, and producers are reluctant to invest in replacing existing machinery for potting and transplanting until there is certainty about which format/s will become the mostly widely adopted. At the same time, retailers are desperate to present their green credentials to consumers and want quick solutions.

“It’s time for joined-up thinking and honesty in sustainable packaging, not virtue-signalling and green-washing,” says Fargro’s Melanie Wood, sentiments that all growers would agree with. “Recyclable plant pots made from recycled materials, and compostable pots made from sustainable organic materials, are increasingly important to us and our customers. Leading pot manufacturers are working hard to meet growers’ and retailers’ environmental and marketing requirements,” she continues. “The requirement for non-plastic alternatives has always been part of our offering, for example our Vipot range of biodegradable pots. There has been an increase in demand for this range and we have increased our stock holding to support demand.”

One company which has always supplied a compostable product is Jiffy, and Sales & Marketing Manager Stephen Godfrey says that it is seeing increased interest in its products as a result of the plastics debate. “We are seeing a lot of interest in our new R2 pot, which is a stronger retail-able version of the standard Jiffy-pot,” he explains. “The the drier the pot stays, and the better the air movement in the environment, the longer it will last. The R2 pot can be used to grow in and then dispatch to the retailer: it can be made with coir or peat mixed with wood-pulp.”

Jiffy say that using peat and wood pulp as main ingredients, keeps its ‘home compostable’ promise intact, the addition of an ‘extra characteristic’ makes sure the pot stays dry, even when exposed to water or a humid substrate. The result is a compostable pot that will keep its rigid shape longer, is sturdier, as well as keeps a clean look and touch. The R2 can be made available in more than 30 different sizes.

Another company backing the use of compostable pots is Modiform. “Modiform are introducing a range called EcoExpert, which will feature in our new 2019 Buyer’s Guide along with TEKU’s post-consumer-recycling blue pots,” says Simon Myerscough of LS Systems. Rather than plastic, Modiform’s EcoExpert product range is made from 100 per cent recycled paper fibre which is waste from the production of cardboard boxes. Consequently, Modiform say that the new products can easily be recycled through standard household or retailer routes, or composted. If any pots find themselves into the natural environment they will degrade within a year.

“The products have been carefully designed by our team of in-house designers to give optimal pallet count, de-stacking possibilities, shelf loading and strength,” explains Shaun Herdsman of Modiform. “Most moulded pulp products have microscopic holes, which is not great when working within the horticultural environment as water can easily escape or penetrate into the material making it weak. We use a natural wax additive in the cardboard mix which blocks the microscopic holes and creates a water barrier. This natural wax is completely biodegradable and can be recycled with all other cardboard through the normal recycling systems.” As well as pots, the EcoExpert range includes trays and other similar packaging.

Not everyone feels that compostable packaging is the way to proceed, and certainly some growers have had bad experiences in the past with other pulp-based pots and trays which have been unable to stand up to the rigours of horticultural production, including repeated wetting and handling. “Modiform have been working in recycling for over 35 years, taking back used trays from growers and making new material out of them,” continues Shaun. “In December 2018 we finished investing in a brand new recycling plant to be able to cope with more waste materials. We believe that if we can organise a closed loop collection system together with retailers and growers, then this is the most environmentally way to use plastic.

“From testing and research with recyclers around the UK we have found that the lighter colour the material is, the higher chance there is of it being detected. However, we can’t just change the colour; we also have to think about materials too. We can keep making pots from polypropylene, but bedding packs should be changed from expanded polystyrene to PET (polyethylene terephthalate). Retailers still like to see colours, and so we have developed blue, green taupe, and grey pots made entirely from post consumer waste.”

Pöppelmann TEKU® has introduced a range of pots made from post-consumer-recycling (PCR) plastic, which are 100 per cent recyclable creating a closed material cycle. “Greater sustainability is an important issue in horticulture, too,” says Anthony Clarke of Pöppelmann. “Consumers are increasingly opting for environmentally friendly and climate change-mitigating products. PÖPPELMANN blue®is a new strategic Pöppelmann-wide initiative which brings together numerous projects across the business which are committed to a continuous recycling economy. The proportion of recycled material used by Pöppelmann TEKU has been more than 80 per cent for some time. Projects such as these new plant pots made from PCR go a significant step further.”

The plastic used for these new pots is 100 per cent recycled and comes from Der Grüne Punkt (Germany’s Green Dot dual system). The manufacturers point out that once a plant is pulled out of a pot, the pot is then put back into the recycling system so that the plastic is available to be used again. “With the PCR range, Pöppelmann TEKU®is closing the material cycle at the same stage of the value added chain,” adds Anthony. “The new Pöppelmann PCR recycling material is being used for the most common plant pots in our VCG and VCH series, and additional series will follow soon. PÖPPELMANN blue®pots are the same design and high quality as our standard ranges and are totally interchangeable, offering growers an easy way to be more environmentally responsible and sustainable. No new plastic is used in the production of these and we continue to work with RECOUP (RECycling of Used Plastics), recyclers and local authorities to promote the awareness of kerbside recyclable pots and to widen their acceptance across the country.

More and more manufacturers, and their customers, are considering what happens to pots once the consumer has done with them. French manufacturer Soparco are also members of RECOUP, something that the firm’s Louis Ranoux says allows manufacturers to “share the best practice and communicate the advantages of plastic recycling.”

She adds that, “Our customers, including growers and garden centres, want to help consumers handle the pot when they want to get rid of it. Therefore, they are asking for pots that are kerbside-recyclable, meaning they are detectable by NIR detection in recycling facilities. We see a growing demand for coloured pots, which is interesting as it also helps add value to products at the point of sale: Taupe is becoming the new black. Once collected, the pots are crushed to make regrind material, which enables the material to be used again, and we need consumers to know that the recycled material is ecological, as it has no impact on fossil resources.”

There are other options to make plastic pots, even black ones, recyclable. Most black plastic is coloured with carbon black pigments which cannot be detected by the optical sorting systems used in recycling facilities, but detectable black colourants are available. “We have always used 100 per cent recycled plastic to manufacture our products, added to a little black ‘master batch’ material,” explains Angela Smith of H. Smith Plastics. “We use post-industrial multi-coloured high impact polystyrene (HIPS), and black is used as it is the easiest colour to produce when using multi-coloured recycled plastic.”

She points out that in terms of chemical composition, this plastic is as recyclable as any other colour HIPS, and that issues arise because of detecting it at local authority recycling plants. “Progress has been made in making black plastic NIR-detectable and we know of two firms (Colour Tone and Begg & Co. Thermoplastics) that are producing this NIR-detectable black ‘master batch.’ This should eventually make black trays and pots easily recyclable.”

H. Smith Plastics already takes customer’s used plastic to its local recycling plant, where it is cleaned and reprocessed, but Angela adds that, “Customers are increasing asking for coloured pots as they are perceived to be more recyclable. In fact these pots usually need a higher percentage of virgin material to enable the colours to be standardised. When we make coloured pots or trays we gather together as much of one colour material as we can and mix to a colour, but these colours can’t be exact.”

Louis Ranoux believes that there will always be a demand for some black plastic pots from price-driven customers, but she points out the marketing advantages of coloured materials, as long as they are practical for the grower. “The use of colours keeps growing due to marketing and NIR detection issues,” she says. “Printing or in-mould-labelling are also developing fast, as they are a way to customise the product, and can be used for branding or to show how the plant will look when fully grown. Obviously pots need to have the right shape and drainage properties to grow the plant and they need to be compatible with automation systems and logistics, but otherwise marketing has become key. For example, a carrying handle is a way to encourage purchase and the ‘catch and carry’ concept has been a great success. Decorative pots that are used to grow plants are very popular: they are eye-catching at the point of sale and can then put on the balcony or in the garden as soon as the consumer gets home.”

Whichever way the industry moves to improve the sustainability of the humble plant pot, it needs to be coherent. “Fargro works with industry bodies to lobby policy makers for a coherent waste and recycling strategy, which is currently the major impediment to adoption of some excellent solutions. But we also need to inspire a cultural shift,” says Melanie Wood. “Retailers and consumers need to understand and accept that the higher costs of alternative materials and the consequent changes in manufacturing and production processes can’t simply be absorbed by manufacturers and suppliers. We all have our part to play. Our industry must not approach the demand for sustainability as a threat to be managed, but as an opportunity to engage and educate.”