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Wednesday, May 20, 2009 04:49 pm

Recycle plastic garden pots

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It’s essential for all of us to practive the three R’s of being a good steward of the earth: reduce, reuse and recycle. Last weekend I walked around my small town on community cleanup day looking for hidden treasures in others’ trash. During cleanup day, residents can put out items that are not accepted in regular trash pickup. My finds included plastic pots and bricks for edging. I will use some of these pots for replanting houseplants; the rest will be recycled.

It is ironic that the horticulture industry, whose goal is to beautify our yards and help us appreciate nature, is the same industry that uses millions of plastic pots each year. Most of these end up in landfills. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 28.9 million tons of plastic containers were generated in 2005. Plastics are a rapidly growing segment of municipal solid waste. The largest category of plastics includes pots and flat trays that hold your plants. In 2004, Penn State University College of Agriculture Sciences estimated that cell packs, flats and assorted nursery pots alone account for more than 320 million pounds of waste each year.

Ultimately the solution is for the industry to go “green” and offer plants in biodegradable pots. This year, the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources is using 100 percent biodegradable pots to grow plants such as vegetables and herbs. These pots can be put into the ground with the plants still inside. Roots grow through the walls of the pot and into the soil. The pots eventually dissolve into fertilizer. These pots may cost a little more than plastic, but they won’t end up in a landfill. Another benefit is that plants experience less transplant shock and root disturbance when the pot stays intact and is planted in the ground.

There are several research projects underway to develop “bioplastics” for use as pots. Formulas of commercially available biodegradable pots vary; they can be made of wood fiber, paper, peat moss or animal products such as cow manure. One drawback of these containers is that some tend to be more fragile than plastic containers. Ball Horticultural Company has created Ellepots. These “plantable pots” are made from degradable, non-woven paper. Until the horticulture industry is able to move full steam ahead with using biodegradable pots, it is our job as gardeners to recycle or reuse plastic containers.

University of Illinois Extension is trying to make a small dent in the number of pots that are sent to the landfill. This Saturday, May 23, from 9 a.m. to noon, Master Gardeners will host a “Recycle Your Plastic Garden Pots” event. This event will be held at Hundman Lumber, 2994 J. David Jones Parkway, Springfield (across from the airport entrance).

Hundman Lumber will transport collected pots to Bloomington. McLean County Master Gardeners have a central collection site for the pots. Their goal is to collect enough to fill a semi-trailer. When this goal is met, the pots will be shipped to Michigan where they will be made into new pots.

No food or beverage containers will be accepted. Three categories of plastic pots will be accepted, #2, #5 and #6. Number 2 pots are HDPE, High Density Polyethylene. These are usually ribbed and have a hole in the center of the bottom of the pot.

Number 5 pots are PP, polypropylene. This includes pots and some trays with mesh bottoms. In a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors, they are usually marked on the bottom with the symbol. Number 6 pots are PS, polystyrene. Most trays and cell packs are polystyrene.

To ease handling and speed up the dropoff process, please have plastics sorted. Separate according to type of plastic regardless of size, style or color. Remove all loose dirt and contaminants. Remove all metal hangers from baskets, as well as metal rings and staples. Remove all tags from pots and trays.

Organizations that would like pots to reuse should call (217) 782-4617. Indicate the size and quantity of containers needed.

Contact Jennifer Fishburn@fishburn@illinois.edu.

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