As a high-input industry, greenhouse production relies on many nonrenewable and petroleum-based products. Pesticides, fertilizers, heating, irrigation, and plastic packaging rank among such inputs, which are associated with undesirable environmental impacts (Evans and Hensley, 2004). The long-term sustainability of the horticulture industry may be an area of concern for “green” customers who take the social cost of carbon into account when making purchasing decisions. The social cost of carbon is an indirect measure of damage from additional CO2 emissions and is an approximation of how climate change affects economic welfare (Moore et al., 2017; Nordhaus, 2017). Companies with environmentally conscious practices can increase profitability by targeting customers who consider environmental impacts (Russo and Fouts, 1997). Sustainable practices that use renewable and biodegradable inputs in floricultural production systems constitute an area of growing interest to consumers and producers alike, yet the economic components have not been fully explored to date (Behe et al., 2013; Dennis et al., 2010). Although consumers are willing to pay more for products that are favorable to the environment, growers often fear that sustainable production practices will not be compatible with their existing production systems (Dennis et al., 2010; Laroche et al., 2001). This study explores the economic feasibility and social cost impact of incorporating alternative containers into a greenhouse production system by using petunia as a model crop.
Alternative containers have reduced environmental impacts compared with their traditional plastic counterparts (Schrader et al., 2016). Plastic containers lead to disposal issues, and recycling facilities are often unwilling to accept plastic containers if they have soil or media residue (Hall et al., 2010). Alternative containers can potentially decrease plastic landfill wastes and reduce the petroleum-based inputs in greenhouse production by replacing traditional plastic pots, which account for 16% of the carbon footprint of a finished petunia plant (Koeser et al., 2014).
Despite these potential benefits, adoption of alternative containers will only become a reality if growers do not perceive their use as an economic risk. The impact of alternative containers on yield can be unpredictable because the effect of container type on plant growth has been variable, can depend on location and species, and often leads to higher water use (Evans and Hensley, 2004; Koeser et al., 2013; Sun et al., 2014). Our study looks at the economic cost of producing a flat of petunia plants grown in containers made from alternative materials, including bioplastic, coir, manure, peat, bioplastic sleeve, slotted rice, solid rice, straw, wood fiber, and recycled, reground plastic.
Biodegradable, compostable, or bioresin containers are “green” products that have become increasingly popular over the past several years (Lubick, 2007). Hall et al. (2009) reported that most of the growers viewed sustainable practices as “very important,” and found recycling plastic pots to be the most common sustainable practice in place. The surveyed growers valued sustainability in their operations, but positive attitudes were not enough to predict their behavior, given that they were concerned about the ease of implementation and production risks of implementing sustainable practices. Consumers are also concerned with sustainability and value container types over any other input when making a purchasing decision (Hall et al., 2010).
Previous research by Koeser et al. (2014) examined the cradle-to-gate impacts of alternative container use in greenhouse production of a petunia plant. They performed a GWP assessment (U.S. EPA, 2012) to help commercial growers identify secondary impacts associated with their sustainable practices. The GWP is a metric that assesses how much additional heat is trapped in the atmosphere by the release of greenhouses gasses (e.g., carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) for the inputs and activities within the predefined boundaries of the study. The cradle-to-gate life cycle analysis performed by Koeser et al. (2014) began with propagation from seed at a large, semimechanized wholesale greenhouse in Illinois that supplies retailers throughout the Midwestern United States. Seed production and transport were not included. After germination, they grew seedlings in a greenhouse until they were large enough to transplant from their initial plug tray cell to a larger, final container and into a shuttle tray for subsequent outdoor production. Once plants were market-ready, Koeser et al. (2014) transported them to the largest urban garden retail center in the distribution range for sale in Chicago (322 km round trip is the distance from the grower to the largest urban center in its distribution range. Total transportation costs included 1,172 km in total, i.e., 110 km for pesticides, fertilizers, and commercially produced plug growing mix; 148 km for perlite; 740 km for plastic containers and trays; and 348 km round trip to final destination). The life cycle analysis that they performed did not consider emissions associated with the production of capital goods (e.g., the greenhouse facilities and mechanized equipment) used to produce the plants. As reported by Koeser et al. (2014), most of the carbon emissions (expressed in kg-CO2 equivalents) came from the electrical consumption used for supplemental lighting, whereas wood heating resulted in a minimal contribution to carbon emissions. Other notable inputs contributing to the total GWP included the plastic tray (20%), plastic container (16%), and peat (7.7%). Our research used those results to provide a comparison of economic and social costs related to using alternative containers in greenhouse production systems. These emission values are one indicator of the social costs of production inputs associated with negative impacts on our environment.
Sustainable horticultural production ideally accounts for both traditional economic considerations and the social costs associated with negative environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Our objective was to explore the economic and social costs of integrating alternative containers into greenhouse production of a petunia plant, which is one of the most widely produced ornamental crops in the world (Vandenbussche et al., 2016). The results of this study can be widely applied to other annual crops. We used a cradle-to-gate carbon footprint assessment from previous research (Koeser et al., 2014), which we supplemented and enhanced with additional data, to estimate a more complete COP budget for a flat of petunia plants grown in plastic pots and alternative pots. We subsequently compared these budgets. The results of this study will help commercial growers determine the economic and social costs potentially associated with adopting alternative containers into their production systems.
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