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Movement to Recycle Horticultural Plastic Grows

Nursery Stock, Green News / Practices

Positive steps are being taken to promote plastic pot recycling.

Joe Lamp'l/DIY Network | September 10, 2008

As gardeners, we do so much to beautify lawns and landscapes. But in the process of planting, pruning and ongoing maintenance, we generate a great deal of waste. Sadly, much of that ends up in the landfill. Of the total landfill volume, estimates list the percentage of compostable waste from yard debris at about 12 percent. When you think about the size of most landfills around the country, that's a lot of material that simply doesn't need to be there.

Gardeners are in for a long wait before recycling horticultural plastic is widely accepted by processing facilities. Of the pots that can be recycled, most municipalities lack the resources to manually segregate those from the many more that can't.

Another contribution we gardeners make to this mountain of waste is the millions of plastic pots we discard each year, from seedling six-packs to the giant black buckets used for growing trees and every size in between.

Unfortunately, options for what we do with them once they're empty are much more limited. Unlike yard debris, plastic pots are not compostable and most aren't easily recycled. So even the best-intentioned, environmentally conscious steward has few options when it comes to responsible disposal.

When I moved about two years ago, I had amassed literally thousands of pots that I thought I'd use someday for a small nursery. But when it came time to pack, space was at a premium and the pots had to go. Unable to find a willing taker to reuse them personally and without a source that would accept them all for recycling, I ended up taking many of them to the landfill. I still remember tossing stacks of pots onto the rapidly growing pile of waste destined for the landfill. I felt sick.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, of the nearly 27 million tons of plastic generated in the United States in 2003, only 3.9 million tons was recycled -- and very little of that was garden-related. Unfortunately, gardeners are in for a long wait before processing facilities accept horticultural plastic. Most municipalities lack the resources to manually separate pots that can be recycled from those that can't. Manufacturers, growers and nurseries have yet to seriously consider a uniform standard for recyclable containers.

Yet, positive things are happening. In 2007, the Missouri Botanical Garden's Plastic Pot Recycling program successfully recycled over 100,000 pounds of horticultural plastic originally destined for landfills. With the cooperation of seven local garden-center drop-off sites, this year it has set a goal of collecting and recycling a record 150,000 pounds of plastic.

The "MOBOT" recycling program was started in 1997, thanks to a plethora of pots piling up in the garage of Steve Cline. He's the program's founder and manager of the William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Since then, the program has prevented over 300 tons of horticultural waste from going into landfills. The garden's successful program in St. Louis is the most extensive public garden-recycling program in the United States. Recently, it received the American Public Gardens Association's award for program excellence, recognizing its innovative and pioneering spirit.

There is an effort by a group in the nursery-and-landscape industry to standardize the sizes of horticultural containers in an attempt to simplify the recycling process. A group will soon go before the American Nursery and Landscape Association Senate to start the ball rolling on this campaign.

Although I applaud their efforts, standard sizes will have little effect on the bigger problem. I believe the answer is to standardize the materials used to make the containers, so they're all recyclable -- no matter what the size. It will take cooperation from many sides. The nursery-and-landscape industry and we as home gardeners and weekend warriors do great things to beautify the environment, but we need a way to eliminate the impact left behind in doing so.

(Joe Lamp'l, host of "Fresh From the Garden" on the DIY Network and "GardenSMART" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information, visit and For more stories, visit


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