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

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS ALYS FOWLER IL­LUS­TRA­TION VICKI TURNER

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

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