To garden gently
Gardeners are as responsible for addressing the plastic problem as anyone, but what can we do about it? Alys Fowler explores the options
Alys Fowler looks at how to minimise the use of plastic in the garden
The invention of a light, yet strong, plastic pot in the 1960s changed how we gardened forever. It revolutionised the growing industry and played no small part in the making of the garden centre. It meant you could sell plants throughout the year. It led to mechanised potting machines and industrial production of plants. It was a game changer.
For younger generations it’s hard to imagine, but autumn and winter was once the only time that trees, shrubs and perennials could be lifted and sold. There were attempts to make cardboard pots, and there was the Heartlands paper pot for annuals and the whale-hide pot for tomatoes (made not from whales, but rigid pitch and fibre) but they all fell apart too quickly, which meant you couldn’t have stock sitting around. Plastic changed all that.
It makes a great pot too: it holds moisture, and is light and strong. If plastic transformed the nursery industry, just think what it did for composting, labelling and protected growing – plastic polytunnels have allowed cheap, year-round production of vegetables. Plastic is everywhere – in netting, f leece, hoses, warm and light clothing, waterproofs, wellingtons and tools. But the downside, as we now know, is that it doesn’t go away. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles.
It is thought that the sea contains 51 trillion micro-plastic particles. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea and 99 per cent of all the seabirds on the planet will have consumed plastic. And we are already starting to consume some of that plastic through the f lesh of fish and other animals.
In light of this, wouldn’t it be good to get rid of some of the plastic in your garden? The easy answer is, of course, yes, but the reality is more complex. As horticultural consultant John Adlam explains, “For the grower, there are options. Some take back their old pots or polytunnel film, and some use either 100 per cent or a proportion of recycled plastic.” But a strong plastic pot that will last more than six months needs a lot of virgin plastic, and recycled plastic tends to degrade much quicker.
“The industry has not closed its ears to finding a solution,” says John, “but at present many of options just aren’t stable or strong enough, they just shatter. What we need is a bio-plastic, the destiny of which we can control – perhaps it doesn’t degrade until its sprayed with something that starts decomposition.” The John Innes Centre has been trialling potato and pea starch as polymer for plastic, so the will to find a solution is out there.
In some areas, plastic pots are accepted in kerbside recycling. Sixty per cent of our plastic goes abroad to be recycled, in line
with government subsidies. If you recycle in the UK, you only get paid for clean, sorted plastic, and this applies to just 40-50 per cent of an average tonne of collected recycling plastic. If you export, you get paid for the full tonne regardless of contamination. This incentivises processing outside of the UK.
There are several disadvantage to this. First, we’re missing a trick: processing plastic could be a lucrative and innovative market, and from an ethical standpoint we should be dealing with our waste at home, not sending it elsewhere. Second, and perhaps more urgently, is that China, the world leader in plastic recycling, recently announced that it would no longer accept contaminated plastic, which is often impossible to recycle. The hunt is now on to find an alternative and in the meantime the recycling is stacking up.
As responsible gardeners, if you find a recycling point for plastic pots, do your duty. Wash your pots and stack them neatly. There’s a reason why many local garden centres and council fail to provide such facilities, however, and this is because it is just not financially viable for recycling companies to collect limited numbers of unsorted, unclean pots.
There is a silver lining, though, in the shape of a pot that doesn’t have a single bit of plastic it in. For the past 34 years, Derek Taylor of the Hairy Pot Plant Company has been growing plants for garden centres and multiples, and has seen the industry grow more commercial and competitive. “People try to stand out – bigger labels, brighter pots, better point-ofsales material,” he says. “But we felt we were getting further and further away from the essential thing, which is that plants are green, living products. People often buy plants because it’s a good thing for the environment and yet we seemed to be going in the wrong direction.” So he decided to reduce the artificial element in selling plants. The result, after a lot of trialling, is a pot made from coir (hence the ‘Hairy’ name), made by a women’s co-operative in Sri Lanka. There are also wooden labels and wooden reusable trays for the garden centre, peat-free compost and an extensive range of herbs and cottage garden plants. It’s no small operation either, with 300,000 plants a year racing through the mechanised potting machines.
It’s not been cheap. A plastic pot cost around 5p wholesale, while a coir one costs 30p, and because coir pots behave differently from plastic ones in a potting machine, an extra person is needed to feed them through. But the finances have stacked up. You can find Hairy plants everywhere, from garden centres to National Trust properties. And at the end of the day, the pot goes straight into your compost. “We felt it was the right thing to do,” explains Derek. “You have a choice in life. You can get bigger or you can downsize and risk doing something you believe in.”
The Hairy Pot Plant Company has shown there are innovative solutions to the plastic problem, and there’s huge willingness throughout the industry to follow suit. Our bit as consumers is to support such endeavours. We have a responsibility to garden as gently as we can upon this green earth.
USEFUL INFORMATION • Learn more about the Hairy Pot Plant Company and find
stockists for its pots at hairypotplants.co.uk • Filcris Ltd is a large trade stockist and fabricator of recycled plastic products, offering a range of items from landscaping edging to plastic timber, raised beds and composters, filcris.co.uk • Soparco produces pots, containers and other items made from a high percentage of recycled raw materials for use in horticulture and nurseries, soparco.com • A Short Walk specialises in eco products and offers recycled garden items including Ecopots – durable, attractive containers made from recycled plastics, ashortwalk.com • Plantpak by Crest offers seed trays, modules and gravel trays, all made from 100 per cent recycled plastic. Crest Garden also makes peat-free fibre pots, crest-garden.com