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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Garden waste or garden resource?

Pulling Plant Plastics Out of R.I.’s Waste Stream

By ROSE MARQUES/ecoRI.org News contributor
Rhode Island’s greenhouse, nursery and landscape industry is becoming serious about its environmental profile. Its efforts are growing to recycle and reuse many of the plastic plant pots, six packs and container trays that previously ended up in the Central Landfill.

While some states are still trying to figure out what to do with these dirty pots, Rhode Island is making a serious dent in its plant plastics.
Nurserymen and garden center owners are striving to keep used pots, packs and trays out of the trash. Most will gladly accept these materials back from their customers, gather them and eventually dispose of them properly for recycling. When you buy plants, ask the retailer about returning the empties.



“We’ve been using recycled plant pots for 25 years,” said Harry Chase, owner of Chase Farms in Portsmouth. The black pots they use for plants are made of recycled plastic, although he admitted that particular plants require new plastic pots, because plastic degrades with each recycling round. Some of his plastic pots have been recycled two and three times. “The plastic is totally used up.”
He said the number imprinted on the bottom of pots tells some of the story. If there is no number, it is likely a low-grade plastic that may have been recycled a number of times, Chase said.
Plastics that are recycled are either chopped to pellets or melted down. While recycled plastic is reincarnated into many forms, from furniture to earring backs, some of it also makes its way back to the landscape industry in the form of plastic lumber and retaining wall ties.
At the industry level, the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association (RINLA) has been setting up collection days for about the past three years. The effort began when James Pagliarini, an owner of Central Nurseries in Johnston, noticed both the environmental and economic impact of the countless plastic pots piling up at the nursery.
“The pots don’t break down in the landfill and they cost too much to get rid of,” he said. He raised the issue to RINLA and eventually set up collections throughout the year. A nursery, such as Clark Farms in South Kingstown last year, generally hosts the event, and RINLA brings in Dumpsters to gather these plastic containers for recycling. Pagliarini hauls away the collection for free and delivers it to Full Circle Recycling in Johnston.
Now rather than excess pots costing nurseries a disposal fee, RINLA receives a small amount from Full Circle per Dumpster load and sets the money aside for either research or a scholarship fund. RINLA has since diverted some 50,000 pounds of plastic from the state landfill.
Backyard gardeners also are welcome to drop off pots and trays at Full Circle, but, depending on where one lives, it may be more convenient — and fuel efficient — to return the plastic containers to a local nursery.
Certain nurseries and organizations also reuse some pots and trays before they are eventually relegated to recycling. Chase said his nursery uses some discarded pots for outdoor crops, after the containers are cleaned and sterilized.
Pagliarini said his nursery also reuses pots when feasible, but the risk of perpetuating plant diseases and fungi can be high for a large nursery and for plant growers. He finds that the number of reusable pots is far higher than the average nursery can safely reuse, so recycling is a good option.
Maryanne Brady, owner of Cranesbill Nursery in Swansea, Mass., accepts returned empties, cleans and sterilizes them in a bleach solution, and then reuses them to pot up her nursery’s stock. But not all pots work for her plants. Those that she can’t use she gives to New Urban Farmers in Pawtucket for reuse in its potting and growing, plant sales, markets and other efforts. The organization’s assistant director and co-founder, Emily Jodka, said New Urban Farmers also accepts old gardening tools, watering cans and leftover mulch.
The Providence VA Medical Center has a fledgling greenhouse therapy program, under the direction of Paul Gauthier. The program welcomes reusable pots, plant trays and even used garden tools for reuse in its healing programs.
While nurseries at the commercial level have various ways to clean and sterilize pots for reuse, Chase said at the residential level homeowners can reuse plastic pots to start seeds and root cuttings. A pot that has been washed clean can be sterilized in the microwave, he said.
ecoRI News will begin collecting plant pots and trays at the April 7 Wintertime Farmers’ Market at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket. Relatively clean and rinsed pots will be donated to certain nurseries and organizations for reuse.

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