The Great Pot Debate: Plastic Vs. Biodegradable

November 10, 2011 - 12:45

 

We have had many great debates in this country — while this election cycle we will be hearing debates about the best way to jump start the economy. Over the years we have had debates over other critical issues. Some of my favorites have been vitally important beer war debates (“less filling” versus “tastes great”); in sports there is no debate more fierce than the “who is better” Red Sox versus Yankees; or of recent years we have seen serious debates in the grocery store over the topic “paper versus plastic.”

Now we have a new topic of debate. With the many container choices facing growers we get to debate the traditional plastic pot versus the new bio-pots! 

As a business owner you are tasked with showing a profit while supplying the right combination of products or services for your customer. As a grower your task is to grow the best possible product to fit the customer’s needs. When we add the environmental impact of our business decision-making then not only are we talking about profits and customer satisfaction but now topics such as business ethics and corporate stewardship now enter the discussion. How do we find the ‘right’ choice for all in the value chain? 

Growers have a dizzying number of choices today. They include:

Pots that look very ‘green’ to a consumer, but have a few challenges on the production side or, worded differently, are different to grow in than a plastic pot. This list of green looking pots includes pots made of coir or straw and Jiffy Pots made of peat moss. Containers like these are usually permeable to water so they dry and wet at different rates than plastic, crops grow at different speeds, often finishing faster than a crop grown in a plastic pot. Typically these style containers require extra care in material handling systems and these containers will display differently at retail. Consumers recognize these containers as ‘green’ just by their look. A retail concern with pots like this is often this style of pot is wet or slippery by the time it gets to the store.

The other main choice is a collection of pots that to a consumer will look like traditional plastic pots. This group would include products such as rice hull pots from any one of a number of sources, the OP-47 lineup from Ball and Summit, and Jiffy’s CarbonLite pots. All these containers have the look and feel of a traditional plastic pot. This style of containers typically will be easier for a grower to schedule and in most growing environments are the same as a plastic pot. 

Finally we are seeing some interest in the market in using pots that aren’t pots at all! This list includes jumbo pellets or large paper plugs.

And to make the choices for the grower even more complicated we need to talk about if a pot is biodegradable when planted, if it is compostable for either in a home garden or industrial situation, and energy costs and carbon footprints. 

Since Jiffy has containers across a broad range of ‘green’ containers, let’s look at how they describe these different pot issues:

Low-‘e’

Regarding energy use and carbon footprints, the lowest ‘footprint’ container by Jiffy is the CarbonLite. It is made primarily from low-e bio-based plant starches, and uses less total energy than either plastic pots or pots made to be compostable. Roelof Drost from Jiffy talks about how this low energy pot came to be: “Instead of focusing on the end of the life cycle of a product (recycled, composted) here we focused on the beginning of the life cycle of the product and asked ourselves how much energy is used to get to the desired result. Taking that route, we have created a container with an extremely low carbon footprint. This is what it should be all about — using as little input material as possible to get to the desired result. These pots are usually less expensive to make than other bio-based pots. That’s real sustainability.” 

The CarbonLite pot is Vinçotte OK biobased certified. On a basis of the formulated percentage of renewable raw materials the pot is rated two-star bio-based. This means that more than 60 percent of the raw materials are renewable and in the case of CarbonLite pots are renewable plant starch based. The pots are recyclable.

Compostable

Being able to take your pots to the compost pile is attractive option for growers. One issue for any grower looking to use a new container is that many of the pots listed as compostable are only ‘industrial’ compostable — the pot will not degrade in the lower temperatures of a home compost pile nor will the pot break down if the consumer plants it in the garden. Another issue here is that to make a container compostable extra energy and cost are required. 

Compostable pots can be broken into two categories, one group that looks ‘green’ such as coir or peat pots and the other group of plastic looking containers such as rice hull pots. Peat, coir and straw pots are home compostable and may be planted, while the majority of the mock plastic pots are industrial compostable. 

There are certification groups in Europe that are helping growers sort out which is which and growers can now look for Vinçotte and DIN-CERTO approvals. Again Roelof Drost explains, “Certification is an integral part of an industrial recycling system. It enables compostable products to be identified by a unique mark letting consumers know that the product will break down to its basic materials. The peat pot is fully compostable at home so it carries a certification Vinçotte OK compost HOME certified. The OK compost HOME certificate guarantees complete biodegradability of the pot for home garden use with the consumer. For pots with industrial certification we see DIN-CERTO approvals.” 

Consumer Appeal

One of the major reasons to shift to a bio-pot would be to create a more desirable product at retail. A new challenge for growers is to communicate at point of sale the environmental benefits of a new plant pot. For some pots, they do the talking themselves — peat pots, pellets or coir pots look like they will be compostable. One idea to overcome the possibility of the pots being too wet or slippery at retail is to display them with paper wraps around the pots and putting all in a cardboard plant carrier.

To connect the consumer to the benefits of hard wall pots such as a rice hull pot or CarbonLite pot, we must look to either POP signs, plant tags or printing on the pots to tell the consumer benefit story. Communication needs to include helping the consumer understand the different benefits of these types of containers. Our industry is just now learning how to attach green messaging onto the plant containers!

Easy choices? Nope. A grower is going to have to balance a number of production issues, cost issues and retail display opportunities. But looking at ways to better use limited resources and ways to offer retailers and consumers more choices should offset some of the headaches of the debate. Paper or plastic? Tastes great or less filling? Plastic pot or bio-pot? 

About The Author

Laurie Scullin runs a marketing consulting company, The New Product Group, and assists horticulture companies in strategic and product marketing decisions. He can be reached at lscullin@gmail.com.

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