Green & Growing: After the flowers are planted
Maybe you shopped the garden centers this spring, or the Conservation District sales and brought home lots of new plant babies. It’s a lovely spring ritual anticipated by many.
Unfortunately, some landscape byproducts are not so lovely. First, there are plastic pots, trays and bags. Second, there are the clippings, branches, and, unfortunately, the mountains of uprooted invasive plants destined for brush dumps and landfills.
Is there a way to green up the landscape without overflowing the transfer stations?
Plastic pots and trays
Plastic pots do a great job of helping us bring home the beauty of plants. But what can we do with the pots? Sherrill Baldwin at the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection says, “If you have green, white, and red pots, clean them out and recycle them.”
This limited recycling option is not new and unfortunately leaves out all the black pots and trays, which are the majority. Baldwin suggests that recent supply chain issues give some retailers incentives to clean and reuse the materials. Try returning them.
Still, it’s up to each of us to figure out which retailers offer this service.
As for plastic bags of potting soil and other garden products, Baldwin says plastic bags marked #2 and #4 are acceptable where the plastic film is recycled.
“All plastic film should be clean and dry,” she says. “Just as with bread bags, you should turn the bag upside down and shake it out.”
To find a recycling location, enter your zip code at bagandfilmrecycling.org.
The plant industry may also offer improvements to the plastic pot problem in the next few years.
In a 2020 report titled “Plastic Pots and the Green Industry” published by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, Ecological landscape designer Marie Chieppo of Sagamore Beach, Mass., wrote: “Professional landscape designers specify hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of plants in our designs every year. We’re aware that the pots go to landfills.”
Unfortunately, 98% of plastic horticultural pots end up in landfills, according to the Healthy Pots, Healthy Planet initiative of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.
Download the report at healthypotshealthyplanet.org/education.
According to Chieppo, “The current recycling technology for plastic pots is burdensome, and the process of preparing them for recycling is cumbersome, complicated and cost-prohibitive.”
Chieppo says that growers have participated in productive experiments, but, as with other examples of change in land care, economics drive the speed of change.
“There are alternative pots available for commercial growing. It’s a matter of getting more growers to use them,” she says.
The report describes plantable, compostable, and bio-plastic pots.
“The APLD does outreach to growers and retailers, trying to educate them on the steps needed to make the transition away from plastic,” says Chieppo. She is updating her report for industry autidences. As for the outlook, she says, “It is still a huge problem, but we are making good headway.”
What’s the take-home message?
For now, recycle green, white and red pots at transfer stations.
Recycle #2 and #4 bags where plastic film is accepted, separate from traditional transfer station recycling.
Shop at garden centers that take back the pots they sell. Also, look for garden clubs and other community groups that give used pots a second life.
In the meantime, it’s summer, and plants are growing. We cut and pull plants and branches to neaten and manage outdoor spaces. It arrives at brush dumps and town transfer stations, where the piles often reach formidable size.
“There’s been more and more plant debris every year,” says Larry Bonin, director of the Department of Public Works for Old Saybrook. “We’re running out of space and ways to manage it.”
Bonin says the Old Saybrook Transfer Station processes general yard waste in a tumble grinder and turns it a few times to make compost. This step helps to reduce mass, “but it’s not managed in a way that creates a clean, seed-free compost product,” he says.
Clean, finished compost results from a science-based process. The process is beyond the scope of most waste management operations, though municipal experiments are springing up around the state. Bonin says his department gives some of the material to commercial compost makers and farmers. Some of it, however, also winds up in landfills.
Invasive plants such as phragmites or bittersweet pose another problem. Seeds can be viable for years. Plant parts can resprout. (Always let invasive plants dry in the sun for at least two weeks before moving them to brush dumps.)
Bonin says, “Wherever that material goes, we may be spreading invasive plants back into the landscape.”
Across the river from Old Saybrook, Nix the Knotweed organizes volunteers in several towns to fight these superweeds. After clipping the plants at the base, they put knotweed cuttings in black plastic bags. (Learn more about the group: Facebook.com/NixtheKnotweed.)
Inside the bags, the plants and seeds die, and the plants can’t regenerate. The bags were eventually taken to the transfer station and hauled to MIRA, the former East Hartford trash to energy plant. There, the contents were incinerated.
Nix the Knotweed founder Suzanne Thompson says they were always aware that the disposal process was imperfect, but they didn’t see a good alternative.
“Now a major incinerator is shutting down in the state,” she says. “It makes no sense to haul our invasive plants to an Ohio landfill.”
The group looked for alternatives, such as drying the highly invasive cuttings in a particular corner of the Old Lyme transfer station and allowing them to decay on-site. Their search for a solution luckily coincided with the launching of a new biochar facility in Old Saybrook.
William Hessert and his business partner, Javaughn Henry, have plunged into the commercialization of a technology that has the potential to shrink unwanted “green” mountains at brush dumps. Their company, Blusky (pronounced “blue sky”) is gearing up to produce solid black carbon, also called biochar, using a heat process called pyrolysis. The process also generates bio-oil that can be used to put carbon back underground and syn-gas to generate clean energy.
“We take different organic wastes like brush and food and convert them into useful products. Keeping organic waste out of landfills reduces methane emissions, and the products we produce also eliminate carbon dioxide emissions.” Their process also generates surplus zero-carbon energy.
Now, knotweed from Nix the Knotweed activities is among the materials fueling test runs of Blusky’s newly installed equipment. “Bittersweet, phragmites, tree of heaven, or any kind of brush, are perfect candidates for biochar,” says Hessert. Hessert hopes to have the process in full operation by September.
What is the take-home message? Brush disposal is a difficult problem for many towns. The simplest alternative is to compost as much of the material as possible on the site where it is cut. Since that is not practical in many situations, encourage your town to begin municipal brush composting.
As Kermit the Frog once sang, it isn’t easy being green. Let’s look forward to the day when bioplastics, biochar, and other green technologies will help.
Kathy Connolly is a writer and speaker from Old Saybrook. Visit her website at SpeakingofLandscapes.com.