The commercial greenhouse and nursery industries often produce crops in plastic containers of varying sizes and shapes depending on the crop and target market (Evans and Hensley, 2004). Plastic containers serve the role of consumer packaging, transportation container, sometimes marketing vehicle as well as propagation and production receptacle and therefore must be strong, compatible with automation, horticultural uses, and able to be formed to essentially any size, shape, and color (Evans and Hensley, 2004; White, 2009). Containers, trays, cell packs, and flats are used for the propagation and production of annual and perennial bedding plants, in which relatively small plants are produced in large quantities (Evans and Hensley, 2004). Additional plastic use in the floriculture industry includes greenhouse films, pot tags, and packaging (Garthe and Kowal, 1993). In 1993, estimates showed that 408 million pounds of plastic were generated by the floriculture and nursery industries. Of that, 23 (5.6%), 90 (22%), 240 (58.8%), and 55 (13.5%) million pounds, respectively, were used for greenhouse films, mulch films, containers, and container trays, packs, and flats (Garthe and Kowal, 1993).
In 2003, the United States generated ≈11 million tons of plastic in the municipal solid waste stream as containers and packaging [Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2007], which comprised a third of all municipal solid waste (EPA, 2005). Nationwide, only 3.9% of the 26.7 million tons of plastic generated in the United States was recycled in 2003 according to the EPA (2007). Most of the recycled plastic was from beverage containers, including soda pop and milk. Agricultural plastics are challenging to recycle or reuse as a result of contamination problems or ultraviolet light degradation. Recycling facilities are often unwilling to accept plastics with soil or media residue. If recycling facilities clean and process the plastics, collection and shipment fees increase as a result of the heavier weight and increased transportation expenses (Garthe and Kowal, 1993). Two types of contamination unique to agriculture are ultraviolet light degradation and pesticide residue (Garthe and Kowal, 1993). Ultraviolet light and heat degradation are caused by exposure to extreme sunlight and heat, which lessens the value of the plastics resulting from loss of flexibility and recyclability (Garthe and Kowal, 1993). Typically, these non-reusable or non-recyclable plastic containers are disposed by consumers and landscapers, thus presenting a significant disposal issue for the horticulture industry (Evans and Hensley, 2004).
In recent years, the floriculture industry has seen a rise in biodegradable, compostable, or bioresin containers often called “green” products (Lubick, 2007). These “green” containers have emerged to take advantage of the green marketing and environmental awareness related to high fuel prices (Kale et al., 2007). Containers made of bioresins have the characteristics of plastics without the petroleum base. These containers are derived with renewable raw materials such as starch (e.g., corn, rice hulls, wheat, and so on), cellulose, soy protein, and lactic acid (White, 2009). Therefore, they are often labeled as compostable because they are broken down by naturally occurring microorganisms into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass when composted or discarded (White, 2009).
Biodegradable containers are those that can be planted directly into the soil or composted and will eventually be broken down by microorganisms (Evans and Hensley, 2004; White, 2009). Most biodegradable containers are made of peat, paper, or coir fiber, with peat containers being the most prevalent (Evans and Hensley, 2004). Other examples of biodegradable container materials include spruce fibers; sphagnum peat; wood fiber and lime; grain husks, predominantly rice hulls; 100% recycled paper; non-woven, degradable paper; dairy cow manure (GreenBeam Pro, 2008); corn; coconut; and straw (Biogro-pots: Eco Friendly, 2007; Van de Wetering, 2008). Some of the reported benefits of using biodegradable and compostable containers include an elimination of plastic waste, stronger and healthier plants, less disturbance of roots during transplanting, and the “feel-good factor” of the grower (Martin, 2008).
Consumers are not all alike. They have different attitudes, preferences, and behavior and differ with regard to their acceptance and purchase of new products (Kotler and Keller, 2006). Groups of consumers create markets. Thus, market segments have characteristics that can be quantified and distinguishable. Consumers think and act differently in response to ideas and products; ornamental plant containers are no different. Consumers impart a different relative importance to products and even features within those products, assigning value and importance through past purchases and future purchase intentions. The presence of environmentally sensitive or “green” consumers has been acknowledged for some time and such consumers are more likely than the general population to take environmentalism into account when purchasing goods. The presence of such consumers has also been assumed to bring profits to companies with a record of environmentally friendly practices (Russo and Fouts, 1997). Most research has found that many consumers are willing to pay a premium price for green products and share attitudes that are favorable to the environment (Engel and Potschke, 1998; Guagnano et al., 1994; Laroche et al., 2001; Schegelmilch et al., 1996; Straugh and Roberts, 1999), yet not all consumer attitudes about the environment are the same (Gladwin et al., 1995; Purser et al., 1995).
Despite the introduction of green products as alternatives to already existing ordinary products, many customers still choose ordinary products with lower “environmental quality” because of price and performance considerations or ignorance and disbelief (Ottman, 1998). Like most innovation activities, green product development is a task characterized by high levels of risk and uncertainty and the introduction of biodegradable containers into the Green industry marketplace is no exception.
Unfortunately, the impact of differing consumer attitudes about the environment on their willingness to pay a premium price for those products has not been explored in the literature. That is, researchers have yet to “unpack” the notion of the green consumer. For example, considering green consumers in the aggregate may mask important distinctions within the group. Unfortunately, there is little work that explores segmentation within the consuming populace on this dimension.
The objective of this study was to determine the characteristics of biodegradable pots that consumers deem most desirable and solicit their preference for this type of sustainable product. Additionally, we wanted to determine the size and develop a profile of the consumer segment(s) that would be more likely to purchase a nursery or greenhouse plant produced and marketed in biodegradable containers made from non-plastic components. We hypothesized that consumers with certain demographic characteristics (age, income, gender) or attitudinal and behavioral (already recycling other materials) have a moderate to high level of interest and will more likely consider purchasing containers made from alternative (non-plastic) materials. This type of segmentation will greatly benefit the Green industry by ensuring that environmentally friendly products marketed to floral consumers in the future truly meet their “sustainability” needs and/or expectations.
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