by Courtney Llewellyn

A recent report from Capgemini, a multinational IT services and consulting company, revealed that 79% of consumers are altering their overall purchasing habits toward sustainable products, most likely due to a dramatic shift in social and environmental reasonability. For growers and garden centers, this translates to an opportunity to increase the market penetration of sustainable containers to an audience increasingly craving environmentally friendly alternatives.

An expert panel delved into this topic at the most recent AmericanHort Cultivate expo. “How to successfully integrate sustainable containers into the market: An overview of growing practices, marketing and profitability” featured Korey Mensch, owner, Mensch Greenhouse; Torie Cande, production manager, Beds and Borders; Mark Yelanich, Ph.D., director of research, Metrolina Greenhouses; Christopher Beytes, editor, Ball Publishing; and Bryce Anderson, territory sales manager, the HC Companies. Their focus: adapting and creating added value and reducing the use of plastics and landfill footprints.

Beytes noted that the change to sustainable tends to be more reactive, rather than proactive. It comes from pressure and social desires – “but what will it cost?” he asked. “That’s the resistance.”

Mensch Greenhouse in Avon, SD, has been a long-time user of molded pulp containers – several decades, in fact. Starting with recycled papers and corrugated boxes, molded pulp is formed into lightweight packaging – in this case, flower pots – that protects whatever it contains and is biodegradable.

“When we started using pulp, we had three options: white plastic, green plastic or pulp,” Mensch said. “We were catering to nothing but mom-and-pop places – and people wanted ‘the look.’” (That look was the traditional plastic pot.) But they stuck with the pulp, noting that it has great insulation value to protect plants throughout summer heat.

“But prices keep going up,” he continued. “I’m already spending more on my pots.” It’s about the perceived value of the pots, though. Consider the advantages Mensch listed: no broken baskets (as pulp is “basically indestructible”), insulation, water-holding capacity – and you only have to worry about them for one season.

Cande commented, “A huge part of making an impact is a small shift. Each person and each company can make changes that make sense for them.” At Beds and Borders in Laurel, NY, they have made shifts to include a 262-panel photovoltaic system, and this year they will be printing sustainable labels on WoodTags, biodegradable and durable paper tags. They currently offer 90% of their hanging baskets and eight-inch pots in a fiber alternative from HC Companies’ FiberGrow Line.

At Metrolina Greenhouses in Huntersville, NC, Yelanich said they asked people to bring back pots to reuse them, and they saw 800,000 returned – “and we’re getting carry trays back too,” he said. The recycling and reusing saves 30 cents each. (To reuse safely, they wash the pots and trays, disinfect them with peroxide and then steam them.)

Fortunately, there are options out there for those looking to make the change. Anderson listed peat, coconut coir and wood/paper pulp as options. Those seeking “bio-preferred” containers, which are 50% or more natural fibers, can find them, although they often use inorganic binding products to hold things together. “They won’t necessarily break down in the allowed amount of time for certified industrial composting, but paper is still better than plastic,” he said. If customers want to compost these containers at home, it would most likely be fine.

Making the change to sustainable containers may be easier for smaller growers, Beytes said – those without automation and mechanization could find it easier to integrate more natural, bio-based containers. “Consider the style you want and then educate your customers,” he suggested.

That education is key, because, as Mensch said, it’s about the perceived value. Addressing the cost depends on the mindset of the owner.

“It’s about transparency,” Cande concluded. Her business has a full page on their website that outlines their impact on the environment and what they’re doing to address it. “Communicate to customers and let them know what they can do with it. Get into granular detail. It is your right to know what you’re purchasing … and the more people moving the product, the more the price will go down. Growers and manufacturers need to work together to create what works best.”