Antonia Young looks at plastic waste in garden design and asks what can be done
Plastic – everyone’s talking about it. Figures from the RHS state that gardeners in the UK use 500 million plastic plant pots each year, of which around two thirds are either incinerated or end up in landfill. Blue Planet II can claim a fair amount of credit for re-opening the eyes of the general public to the terrible environmental damage caused by our waste plastics across the globe, and consumer pressure is aiding the drive by supermarkets and other businesses to reduce their plastic use, while also looking at environmentally friendly packaging.
Real change will need to come from government and manufacturers, but can we, as sole traders and small companies, do anything in the short term to help reduce our plastic footprint?
Some plant nurseries are now looking at alternatives to the plastic pot. Bluebell Cottage Gardens, a retail nursery in Cheshire, offers a plastic-free delivery service to its customers. The Hairy Pot Plant Company produces coir fibre pots for its plants, and The Urban Jungle nursery in East Anglia is offering a percentage of its plants in terracotta pots (which can then be returned). On a small scale, these options are appealing, and great for a home gardener who only requires a few plants.
However, on a commercial planting job where you may require thousands of plants, these options are not viable. The benefit of plastic is that it is cheap, easy to transport and resistant to water damage. Unfortunately, for most nurseries and designers, there is no better alternative. Black plastic pots are recyclable, but as a small design and maintenance company, we have in the past experienced problems with black plastic being accepted for recycling.
Previously, it was not financially viable for nurseries to reuse the pots (especially the smaller ones) as they needed cleaning before being used again, and the cost of transport to take away plastic waste cut into valuable profit. However, as costs of plastic production have gone up, both manufacturers and nurseries have looked at ways of reducing overheads. It is now more common for nurseries to recycle their plastic pots with the pot manufacturers – when a delivery of new pots comes in, the used ones are taken away and melted down to produce new pots.
New homes for old pots
It’s worth talking to the nurseries where you buy your plants to see if they will take back any used plastic pots and trays. This may take a bit of extra organisation, but the pots need to be disposed of somewhere and if the nursery can recycle them, all the better. It’s also worth checking if there are any organisations near you that can use old plant pots. We have recently started donating ours to a local school that runs a horticultural class. There are plenty of schools that have similar schemes, plus charities or local allotments that could reuse our waste pots. The RHS Plastic Policy also states that it will accept any plastic pots at its gardens and make them available to visitors to take away.
It is worth mentioning that you need a waste carriers’ licence if you are transporting or disposing of waste as part of your business. You can apply for a licence to carry green waste for free (lower-tier licence), but if you also wish to recycle plastic pots you are required to pay for an upper-tier licence, (£105 for three years). Our local Reuse and Recycling Centre (Townmead Road, Kew) requires this before we can use the site. We pass on these costs to clients, and most of the time they are happy to pay.
Aside from pots, there are other plastics for designers to consider. Compost bags, hosepipes, tools and even our wellington boots and waterproof clothing contain plastics. After plant pots, compost and mulch bags are probably the second biggest plastic problem for our business. We currently reuse them as green waste bags (some can be used multiple times) but eventually they will need to be binned. We do consider dumpy bags if the quantities allow, but many of our clients don’t have side access to their gardens, and it’s not practical to decant soil from dumpy bags and bring it through the house.
Even apparently small, simple changes, such as swapping the plastic wrap a magazine is delivered in to paper, can have unexpected consequences. The RHS has been looking at alternatives to the polybag envelope for The Garden magazine. It has considered biodegradable options, but the current materials are not strong enough for purpose and also have a shorter shelf life than the current plastic wrap, which would entail more deliveries and an increased carbon footprint. The same problem arises with paper envelopes, which estimates suggest could result in an additional seven tonnes of mail each year. There is also a cost implication to consider. The Garden Design Journal is going through the same process at present and working hard to find a solution.
The current lack of environmentally friendly alternatives can feel dispiriting, and individually we may feel that there is little we can do to hold back the rising tide of plastic, but collectively we can really start to make a difference. Recycle and reuse, lobby your nurseries, suppliers and manufacturers to come up with alternatives, and consider all your purchases. Any bit of plastic that we can prevent from ending up in our oceans or our soil is worth the effort.