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Piles of plastic pots

Sally Taylor Roberts

Towers of empty black pots accumulating in yards and garden centers everywhere mock the best efforts of home gardeners and professionals to “Conserve, Reuse, Recycle.”

Because the black plastic pots can’t be easily recycled, and because theoretically biodegradable pots don’t degrade in Nevada’s climate, garden shop owners and managers in northern Nevada are helping researchers find new alternatives.

“I’m sick of this plastic, sick to death,” says Marnie Brennan, garden coach at the Garden Shop Nursery on Mayberry Drive in Reno.

Black-plastic pots are made from recycled plastic and can’t be recycled again.

So about reusing them? That has its own set of drawbacks. Reuse requires thorough cleaning. Pots with nursery logos can’t be used by other nurseries, so pots must be sorted before they’re sent back to growers.

“Pots are hard to recycle,” said Mark O’Farrell, owner of Hungry Mother Organics nursery in north Minden. “They have to be cleaned and sanitized, disinfected to be reused.

“We like to reuse pots. It’s better for the environment, but many are flimsy and don’t hold up real well for recycling. If we can’t recycle, it’d be good if they were biodegrade so it’s not laying around in a landfill.”

Biodegradable pots made from an assortment of natural materials have been around for years. Developed for moist climates, they don’t deteriorate well in Nevada soils.

The problem in Nevada, said Heidi Kratsch, western area horticulture specialist at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, is that pieces of the pot exposed above ground tend to wick away moisture from the seedling’s roots.

Newer versions made from sugars or starch similar to bioplastics used by the food industry decay readily, but early versions aren’t strong enough to work as plant pots and some leave plant-harming residue in the soil.

The Cooperative Extension hopes to find a better option.

Joining forces with researchers at Iowa State University, Kratsch wants to ensure the next generation of biodegradable plant pots will decompose in Nevada soils fast enough for plant roots to reach into surrounding soil, while adding fertilizer and organic matter.

Kratsch is experimenting with pots made in a lab at Iowa State from farming byproducts such as corn or soy protein, rice hulls and protein extracted from chicken feathers.

“The biggest question is whether any of these pots will perform as advertised in Nevada’s soils,” Kratsch said. “Our soils are low in organic matter and, therefore, also low in microbes needed to decompose products like these.”

In mid-June, she planted six rows of pot fragments in the ground at UNR’s Main Station Farm along McCarran Boulevard. Each row contains three samples each of 30 different bioplastic pot formulations, as well as “control” pots of the existing petroleum-based pots and pressed peat moss pots.

“We’re excited that we’re actually getting some pots degrading,” Kratsch said. “Our soil is so low in organic matter, I was skeptical. Some pots are fully degrading in only one month.”

While the Cooperative Extension conducts its experiments, the garden center owners are gearing up for their part.

Hungry Mother Organics is on board for the supply-side of the experiment and will use the most promising pots for plants in its nursery.

Brennan as well as Drycreek Garden Company owners John and Nancy Stricklands will approach plant suppliers to identify commercial nurseries willing to try out the new pots and, once the pots are ready for retail, they’ll examine how customers’ receive the product.

Even before new biodegradable pots are ready for market, Brennen will conduct early consumer research on her radio program, “The Impatient Gardener,” which airs at 8 a.m. Saturdays on BUZZ Radio 1279 AM and 96.1FM. She and Kratsch will ask listeners if they would be willing to pay about 40 cents more for a gallon plant if it makes planting easier.

Brennan said gardeners in their 20s and 30s, should be especially receptive because they are more used to the idea of recycling.

“I just think it’s time. Will everybody want to participate? No. But if we mind our P’s and Q’s and contact the right growers and buyers, it has a good chance,” Brennan said.

“It’s good for business, from the point of view of the independent nurseries that care about our planet. We have to think outside the box. We can’t buy cheaper. We don’t have what the big box stores have.

“We have to show our customers that we really care. We don’t want plastic lying around.”