Our Plastic Pot Problem

Linda McGivern’s “guilt nursery”

by Linda McGivern

There I was: at my favorite local garden center eyeing some of the most alluring begonias I had ever seen. It was a warm day in late April; people in masks were merrily social distancing, happy to just be alive and at this Place of Plants that had finally opened its doors to customers after a spring that seemed to go on for years.

I reached a hand toward the beguiling begonia and gritted my teeth from behind my mask. Would I buy this plant? Yes! I picked it up, placed it in the cart and moved a few steps forward. No! I backed up, took the plant from the cart, placed it back on the greenhouse shelf and forced myself to walk away, toward a different area of the store where the plant I had actually come for—a witch hazel shrub—was waiting to be taken home.

In any normal year, I would have bought the begonia with exactly zero thoughts beyond “how many.”

But this is not a normal year—and I am not talking about Covid-19. 

I am talking about sustainability. With the departure of the last kid for college in fall of 2019, my husband and I had embarked on a year of trying to do better environmentally. Reducing our purchasing of plastics was at the top of the list and, let’s face it, it is next to impossible to buy a plant without the attendant plastic pot.

It’s remarkable—in a bad way—that an industry that is about beauty and joy and nature is so persistently and steadfastly wedded to plastics that are largely unsustainable. There has got to be a better way or, at a minimum, research and development toward more sustainable plant potting materials. It has become clear during this year that the only thing that is going to change these industries that rely so fully on plastics is for us consumers to demand change via our wallets—by withholding them.

In the meantime, my plan with the offending pots is essentially “take one, give one.” Every unsustainable pot I bring home, I fill with soil and a baby plant from my extensive gardens and put the refilled pots out by the road. Last summer, within hours of putting out the free plants, they were gone. This year I will have a jar for optional donations to the local animal shelter. This is but a small sustainability measure; nevertheless, it makes me feel better and we can all agree that two different plantings in one pot is always better than one.


    • Thanks Debbie. It’s true that some of the big box stores will take back plastic plant pots for “recycling”. The problem is the larger issue of what happens from there. Many of the countries which used to take the lion’s share of our plastic waste for recycling — most notably China — have stopped taking our plastic trash because of the damage it does to their own environments. National Geographic reports that a full 91 percent of plastic is not recycled, is going straight to landfills and, from there, into our oceans and air as microplastics. It’s a pretty sure bet that Lowe’s and Home Depot’s recycling programs are not the exceptions to this.

      The only way to stop the plastics madness is to not create the problem in the first place.

  1. Worse than the pots, which l can often reuse, are the countless empty plastic bags from mulch or potting soil or whatever. Buying mulch in bulk doesn’t work for me, because it is loaded with bermuda grass starts. Nightmare.

    • My thoughts exactly Laura.

      I have taken in the past 10 years or so to ordering mulch and compost by the yard directly from landscape supply companies, Bermuda grass starts or none. I figure my weeding work is relentless regardless of the provenance of the mulching material used.

      But I did almost have a stroke last summer when my mother-in-law bought 80 bags (yes, you read that correctly — 80!) of that awful pine bark mulch for her garden. The resulting plastic bacchanal was almost as alarming as seeing all the hay and boats wrapped in unsustainable plastic these days.

  2. Missouri Botanical Garden and APLD Sustainability Committee (professional landscape designer organization) conducted a research study on plastic pots. Quote “The report discusses what they have learned about the production, use, disposal and environmental impact of horticultural plastics. It presents the consequences of increasing production and use of these pots without a solution to the problems of disposal”. You can access the report in pfd form at this link: https://www.apld.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/APLD-Plastic-Pots-White-Paper.pdf

  3. Missouri Botanical Garden and APLD Sustainability Committee (professional landscape designer organization) conducted a research study on plastic pots. Quote “The report discusses what they have learned about the production, use, disposal and environmental impact of horticultural plastics. It presents the consequences of increasing production and use of these pots without a solution to the problems of disposal”. You can access the report in pdf form at this link: https://www.apld.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/APLD-Plastic-Pots-White-Paper.pdf

  4. Here a local independent nursery takes them back, cleans them, and reuses them. I’ve actually bought a plant that was in a pot I recognized as having previously returned, which was pretty amusing. I returned the pot again.

    The plastic problem though is horrible and needs to be addressed. The oil industry which sees the writing on the wall with oil as vehicle fuel, has chosen plastic as their new major income source. A switch of one form of environmental destruction for another.

  5. What would be a good alternative for selling plants in, I wonder? What was used before plastic pots existed?

    • Bluestone Perennials, a fairly big vendor, sells its plants in fiber pots that can be planted or composted. I’m sure it raises the price, probably the shipping cost, but I’m happy to pay. Would people in a big box store do the same?

    • Good questions all Anne.

      Several posters asked whether peat would be a viable alternative and I agree that peat is probably not going to work for a variety of reasons, most notably the sustainability problems with peat harvesting. Peat bogs take centuries to develop! Beyond that, I am hard-pressed to see how garden centers would maintain plant stock in biodegradable pots. I am no scientist, but it seems like the pots would be biodegrading right in front of the disapproving eye of the customer, who is accustomed to buying his/her plant in a tidy pot.

      That said, there are a number of exciting possibilities on the horizon for plastic-like products that biodegrade in special facilities at landfills (not so much in your own backyard). I have hope that this could be the future for our garden center industry and then I can go back to buying plants with abandon!

      Until then, I am trying to limit my purchasing of ornamentals and start all veggie garden plants from seed.

    • This sounds good! They can be reused for winter protection as well.

      I was wondering, for small plants, would double paper bags work– short term only of course. We have so many from the grocery store.

  6. Wow, I’m on your wavelength. First off, the UK has done a lot in regard to recycling their plastic pots. I think there was a segment about it on Gardeners’ World, but I’m not 100% positive. There’s no reason why the US couldn’t do something similar.

    Anyway, not that I’m a saint, but I’ve tried hard to reduce my use of plastic except for the plastic pots, which I do re-use or take to Lowe’s. I’ve not purchased a plastic garbage bag in over 7 years because I re-use my mulch bags, 50 lb dog food bags, and the black plastic bags that I recycle from picking up my neighbor’s bagged leaves. I take my extra plastic grocery bags to the local food bank where they re-use them both for sacking food and in their thrift store. I’ve started making my own laundry detergent to keep from buying plastic detergent bottles. The laundry detergent ingredients come in paper and are stored as powdered detergent in a metal container. I do other things as well. My biggest failure, however, is shampoo. I’ve tried Castile soap. It makes my hair feel like straw.

    • Laura, not to disagree but I would say You ARE a Saint!
      Regarding shampoos (and conditioner), many of them are much too thick, wastefully so. I dilute mine with regular water so that they last longer but are still effective. Doesn’t eliminate plastic use but does stretch it out. Also, shower less! 🙂

    • Laura: wow!

      One fact that has really stood out during my past year of “intensive” sustainability (as opposed to the “halfhearted” sustainability of the rest of my life), is that the UK, in particular, is way ahead of us here in the states in terms of embracing environmental sustainability in all realms, not just plastics.

      In our family, we have also made efforts to reduce our waste across the board and I have definitely found that the process of finding more sustainable products that we can live with and/or love is one of serious trial and error. I have been buying shampoo and conditioner “bars”. I will continue to buy them, simply because a large cylindrical plastic tub of uselessness will not hit the landfill after I am done using them. But I will also admit they don’t quite get the job done in the way the conventional products do.

    • We have a small shop here called Refill Madness. They sell household and personal care liquids and powders (some bars) to fill the containers you bring. All are eco-friendly, low-impact products. My daughter has exceptionally sensitive skin so she has to be careful about what she uses. They have good quality, environmentally-aware, skin-friendly shampoo, lotion, sunscreen, laundry detergents … and a small supply of containers if you forget your own. We use an old gallon milk jug to refill for fragrance- and dye-free laundry detergent, found a stain-remover that is the same (and works well). Maybe there’s something like that in your region? It’s a wonderful thing. And frankly, It seems like it would make sense for products that are not geared toward sensitive skin or environmental awareness.

  7. One of the best things we plant lovers can do for the environment is to eat them. Go vegan and it is a win-win-win for your health, the planet, and of course, the animals.

    • Ah Susan! Yes.

      Inspired by our earth-passionate daughter Fiona, the whole fam (five of us) have switched to a mostly plant-based diet. Fiona has managed to go completely vegan; the rest of us are sadly struggling with…cheese. It has been revelatory, cheese or none, to embrace the healthier and more sustainable lifestyle that comes from significantly reducing animal products from our diet.

      I will note that one downside to the vegan/vegetarian diet is that many of the plant-based products like tofu, tempeh and the ever-burgeoning array of fake meats come in — you guessed it — plastics. This is where sustainability and zero-waste collide.

  8. Read about a company a year or two ago that was making garden pots from cow poo. Two birds with one stone of sorts. Or how about degradable pots such as the ones we start our seeds in then simply bury. Bright minds just need to focus and solve our many environmental opportunities.

  9. Thanks so much for the article and comments. I bought a lawn product several years ago — I cannot remember what it was – but it was packaged in a garden soil bag that had been washed, turned inside out and their label and logo was stuck on the “new” outside of the bag. I thought that was a wonderful idea and have wished it caught on.

  10. You might consider adding a small tag or sign to your free plants that asks the receiver to re-use the pot in some way or try to recycle it. That way you are not simply passing the pot to another to toss away. It is VERY hard to buy plants and try to figure out what to do with the pots. I have probably a bajillion in the shed…well, maybe only a million.

    • Hah! Yes. Great idea.

      I should mention at this juncture that I also employ my “baby plant by the road” tactic with other plastic containers that come into the house (yogurt, sour cream, takeout, etc.).

      And it is true that without a sign asking others to also re-use these containers, I am at a very basic level only assuaging my own plastic guilt by foisting the problem on someone else — not fighting for the long haul. Unfortunately, I think the long haul is really going to require an elemental change in the way plants are sold in the first place.

    • The stores, and especially small nurseries, could do a “pick your own” option, like they do for apples, strawberries etc. Everyone bring their own pots/containers, choose plants they want from the nursery – or even an acreage- and store personnel could assist. You take the plants home and bring the pots back again next year.

  11. It’s terrific to read a post like this and to see the inventive comments that it produces. Like many of us gardeners, I have stacks of pots. I re-use them when possible, return them to a local nursery that also reuses them and try to avoid them when possible. But that is almost impossible.

  12. Even Home Depot now sells a lot of its vegetable seedlings in peat pots. It’s not perfect: a plastic film ring sits at the top of the pot to hold it together in handling and sale, and we all know that film plastic is almost impossible to recycle. But it’s vastly less plastic than a regular pot. Regrettably, smaller vendors in my area don’t do this, although several accept and reuse pots, as a writer above experienced. What if we all started asking local places, nicely, “Home Depot manages peat pots, why not you too?” (And I know it doesn’t work too well to plant the peat pot itself, but I’ve done fine peeling it off and composting.)

    • My local Walmart sells their plants in the peat pots with plastic wrap, and I was excited about it too, until I remembered that peat is a finite resource that is critical to the bogs and eco systems it develops in, and takes many many years to reestablish itself. Still, someone is trying out alternatives, which is going in the right direction. I like the idea of letting nurseries and garden centers know we consumers care, and would like an alternative. Carole’s burlap bag idea appeals to me. Maybe the mask sewers could diversify!

      • Cardboard is a possible alternative to plastic, especially for annuals. I’ve attempted to grow potatoes in a cardboard box. The box held up for 5 + months!

  13. The nursery industry has made some attempt to clean up its act in recent years, but still, millions upon millions of plastic pots are being dumped in landfill. Much more has to be done, and each of us should start at home, in our own backyards.

  14. APLD.org currently has an extensive review of this very topic. The green industry as a whole
    has been having this discussion for ages. Solutions will be complex. The link is not
    functioning, but it’s the first story under “Sustainability” graphic.

  15. I bought a lot of plants from local nurseries this summer and have been saving the pots with a plan to return them. I haven’t asked yet, but I would assume they would take them back if they’re the exact sizes they use and not damaged. But recently another local nursery, which I’ve never bought anything from, put out a public call for people’s old nursery pots, so that’s where they’re going. Anyways, it’s worth a try, and it’s a similar solution to the one you’ve found. I doubt that large garden centers would be interested in taking pots back. Just another reason to look for local nursery businesses. I never knew so many existed in my area until COVID trapped me indoors in the spring googling for where to find this and that.

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