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Reduce Your Plastic Footprint

This blog is written by Extension Educator Jennifer Fishburn, 217-782-4617,

Reduce, reuse, and recycle. The three R's are part of being a good steward to the Earth. Jennifer Fishburn, a University of Illinois Extension educator, points out that it is ironic that the horticulture industry, whose goal is to beautify our yards, uses millions of plastic pots and trays each year.

Plastics are a rapidly growing segment of municipal solid waste, she says, and one of the largest categories of plastics includes pots and flat trays that hold plants. In a 2004 estimate, Penn State University's College of Agriculture Sciences estimated that cell packs, flats, and assorted nursery pots account for more than 320 million pounds of plastic produced each year.

Ultimately, Fishburn says, the solution is for the industry to go "green" and offer plants in biodegradable pots. The makeup of commercially available biodegradable pots vary. They can be made of wood fiber, paper, peat moss, or animal products such as cow manure. Drawbacks of biodegradable pots are that some tend to be more fragile or expensive than plastic containers.

"But the benefits of using biodegradable pots are that they won't end up in the landfill, plants experience less transplant shock, and roots stay intact."

A study on biodegradable pot strength and biodegradability was undertaken by Longwood Gardens, Louisiana State University, and the University of Arkansas. Researchers tested plantable pots: peat, CowPots®, fertilepot, cocofiber, StrawPot; and compostable pots: ricehull, paper and cord fiber, OP47 bio pots. Cowpot® containers decomposed the most readily, and cocofiber the least. Complete results of the study can be found at

"Until the horticulture industry begins using biodegradable pots, it is our job as gardeners to reduce, reuse, or recycle plastic containers and not send them to the landfill," Fishburn says.

She offers a few tips for gardeners:

  • Reduce the number of containers by starting seeds at home. Consider starting seeds in homemade newspaper pots.
  • Reuse plastic pots for planting next year's seeds or donating divisions to a local plant sale. If reusing containers, be sure to disinfect plastic pots by soaking clean pots in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water for ten minutes.
  • Recycle plastic pots and trays. Many recycling programs do not recycle plastic pots made of numbers 2, 5, and 6 plastics. Check with your local garden center or hardware store to see if they have a plastic pot recycling program. For example, all Lowe's garden centers will recycle plant pots and trays. Simply return clean pots and trays to the store nearest you. According to Lowes' website, reusable material is sterilized and reintroduced to the production cycle, while non-reusable material is sent for recycling.