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Connolly: What to do with plastic nursery pots

Let's start with an inconvenient truth: Gardening is not an altogether "green" activity. It may produce a lot of greenery, but an unfortunate number of "brown" products and practices can go into a lush landscape. For me, this conundrum is epitomized in the plastic pots, trays and cell packs that pile up after I've been to a good native plant sale. (You read that correctly.)

Over the years, I've questioned this problem and usually came up empty. But a greener day may be coming for the used nursery pot.

Reduce, reuse, recycle?

Most of us don't have the option of reducing the plastic that comes with our plant purchases unless we buy fewer plants. True, there are some new paper and fiber pots that are useful in some circumstances. And the nursery industry is at work on biodegradable alternatives such as the experimental pots derived from chicken feathers. But for now, we have to leave the black-eyed Susans on the bench if we don't the like the container.

What about reuse? Plastic pots and trays can have a second, third or fourth life after a bath in one part chlorine bleach to 10 parts water to kill plant pathogens. Some nurseries and garden centers will reuse the pots they sold, but call ahead and ask before you fill up the trunk with your haul.

"Most garden centers wouldn't find it economical to clean the pots properly," according to Kevin Donahue, director of marketing at the one of the state's largest growers, Imperial Nurseries in Granby Imperial ships over 1 million plants annually, and they reuse sanitized pots for interim growth stages but the final shipment goes out in a fresh pot.

Sometimes local garden clubs will take them for their plant sales., or are all good places to offer free pots and trays - as well as other stuff you're ready to pass along if only someone would take it.

That brings us to the world of municipal recycling, where pot recycling is improving but is still a bit confusing. First, the good news: Pots numbered 1-7 are now acceptable in the towns served by the Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority ( and the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resource Recovery Authority ( If you are uncertain about your town's recycling policies, call your town hall or transfer station or visit one of the websites above. Paul Nonnenmacher, spokesperson for the CRRA, emphasizes that the pots must be free of soil and debris to be eligible.

Now for the bad news. Black plastic pots are still not welcome no matter what number is stamped on the bottom. Nonnenmacher says they do not have a market for the material. "Our customer for plastics makes recycled lumber and black plastic isn't the right color for their product," he said.

There are private recycling programs, however, that do take the black plastics, as well as all the other colors. Imperial Nurseries, for instance, has recycled about 320,000 pounds of horticultural plastics since 2009 when it started putting colorful recycling bins in garden centers. "The stuff is baled and taken to Michigan, where they're remanufactured into horticultural materials," said Donahue.

The bottom line. It's still not as simple to recycle plant pots as it is metal cans. If pot recycling isn't going to work for you, here are 10 other ideas for putting more "green" in your greenery: Cut back on lawn watering, reduce the number of times you mow the lawn, reduce lawn size, leave clippings on the grass, get a water sensor for your sprinkler system, get low-flow soaker hoses, use rain barrels, compost yard wastes, keep soil covered with mulch to prevent erosion and nitrogen loss, and never, ever fertilize without the guidance of a soil test.

And if you want to learn more about what to do with hard-to-recycle items, the state's website,, offers a page titled "A resident's management guide for those not-so-common household items."



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