Putting Plastic Pots in the Recycling Bin? Not so fast!

By Jo Anna Natale, Fairfax Master Gardener
As gardeners, we probably all have piles of plastic nursery pots cluttering our basements or garages. The question is, what do we do with them?

potsFor years, the answer for me was easy: Reuse what I can, then put the rest in the recycling bin and feel good about the many “green” aspects of my gardening hobby. I recently learned, however, that plastic pots are not recyclable in the single-stream recycling process used in Fairfax County, Va. I was shocked and embarrassed at having been an unwitting “wish-cycler”–that is, someone who puts stuff in the recycling bin, trusting it will all get, well, recycled.

Turns out, plenty of other people get this wrong, too, partially because of confusion about what the recycling codes stamped on the bottom of plastics actually mean. “The code numbers and accompanying recycling symbol do not communicate recyclability. Rather, they indicate the type of resin that was used to make the package,” says Christine McCoy, a management analyst with Fairfax County’s Solid Waste Management program.

Products made with certain resins—those stamped with the codes three through seven—are not easily or affordably recycled here, McCoy says. (Plastic pots are usually fives and sixes.) But these don’t necessarily languish in the landfill. Instead, McCoy says, Fairfax County combusts them, generating electricity. It then sells the electricity to power companies that, in turn, sell it to consumers.

What happens to plastic pots (and other non-recyclables) that do erroneously wind up in the recycling bin? Under our single-stream recycling system, if they successfully get identified and separated out as trash, they may end up combusted and converted into electricity. If they don’t, they could contaminate other bonafide recyclables and waste the whole bunch.

Single-stream pros and cons
Single-stream recycling systems are supposed to encourage recycling by making it easy. It works like this: Customers place all would-be recyclables—whether plastic, paper, cardboard or aluminum—into curbside recycling bins. The job of separating the recyclables occurs at facilities that employ sophisticated scanners and workers who physically sort the items.

But while convenient, single-stream systems aren’t perfect. One issue is the problem of people putting non-recyclables into the bin. When scanning machines or workers miss those items, they mix with viable recyclables, essentially polluting them and downgrading the whole load to trash.

Another difficulty: What qualifies as acceptable recyclables can shift with market conditions. According to McCoy, in the past, some 30 to 40 percent of U.S. recyclables have gone to China for processing. Now, China no longer wants much of what we send them.

Recycling options
We can improve the odds of recycling more refuse overall by periodically consulting our trash companies about permissible recyclables and then being scrupulous about putting correct, clean items into the bin. And one step gardeners, in particular, can take is to keep plastic pots and plant trays out of the mix. If tossing them into the trash makes you cringe, here are some options:

First, when feasible, opt for bare-root plants or plants sold in biodegradable containers. Next, reuse your plastic pots as much as possible, as reusing them saves the financial and energy costs associated with combusting, recycling or manufacturing. Reuse clean pots for starting seeds, sharing plant divisions, or storing garden gear. If you buy plants at a nursery, ask whether the nursery will take back pots or plant trays for reuse. If they do, return them there.

Another option: Drop off nursery plastic at stores that promote its recycling. In our area, that includes Home Depot and Lowe’s stores. According to Amy Bennett, a Home Depot corporate spokesperson, Home Depot collects empty pots in their garden centers and sends them to East Jordan Plastics, a Michigan-based company that recycles used pots into new planting containers. Home Depot collects all colors and types of plastic pots, but does not accept plastic nursery trays, cell packs (multi-compartment containers), empty mulch bags, or plant tags, Bennett says.

Lowe’s collects returned plastic pots and plant trays in their garden centers. The company’s plant vendors take back the empty containers for reuse and recycling in the communities where their farms are located, according to Chris Cassell, Lowe’s director of corporate sustainability. Lowe’s also accepts empty mulch bags—and plastic shopping bags—for recycling.

Finally, be alert to any other efforts to recycle plastic pots, such as Virginia Gardeners Recycle, a program that made an impact several years ago.

Joyce Latimer, a Virginia Tech horticulture professor and an extension specialist, started the program in 2010 with good intentions: At the time, “there were a lot of pots floating around and some really bad press questioning how green the green industry was,” she says. “We were trying to make ourselves more green and trying to help gardeners see how they could be more green.”

Gardeners took their empty plastic pots to participating nurseries, mostly in the Richmond area. A local recycling company picked them up and prepared them for shipment to China. Over three years, the initiative collected 16 tons of plastic pots. But then it fizzled. “The prices for recycled plastics in China just dropped to nothing,” Latimer says. “It wasn’t worth the money and time that was being put into it.”

In the future, hope for curbing the amount of plastic used in gardening might come from increased availability of and demand for biodegradable containers. Although supportive, Latimer is skeptical that this option could lead to widespread change: “In all cases, (biodegradable containers) are a lot more expensive, so I really don’t see the industry giving up their plastic pots.”

More likely, she says, is increased interest and participation in plastic-pot recycling by container manufacturers and others in the horticulture industry.