Market research has shown that environmentally conscious consumers are willing to pay more for products developed by companies that incorporate sustainable business practices (Blend and van Ravenswaay, 1999; Thompson and Kidwell, 1998; Yue et al., 2011). Beyond the acceptance of premium pricing, green consumers have shown loyalty to businesses that embrace their environmental ideals (Yue and Tong, 2009). When one looks at issues of sustainability and horticultural sales, container type is consistently listed among the top factors having a positive impact on consumer product perception (Dennis et al., 2010; Hall et al., 2010; Yue et al., 2011). As a highly visible symbol of past production processes, container type has generated more interest than “behind the scenes” practices such as organic fertilizer or efficient greenhouse space usage (Yue et al., 2011). Similar results were found in the work by Hall et al. (2010), who found that container type outweighed all other purchasing considerations—including price and carbon footprint. These findings have led researchers to state that consumers are more interested in making the pots sustainable than the plants themselves (Yue et al., 2011).
Despite this consumer interest, biocontainers as a whole have yet to be widely embraced by the greenhouse and nursery industry. Hall et al. (2009) found that over 22% of growers surveyed indicated that they had used biocontainers in their operations. Of the remaining 78% that participated in the study, only 6% noted that they would like to add biocontainers to their current production processes (Hall et al., 2009). Similarly, research by Dennis et al. (2010), reported that 12% of greenhouse growers acknowledged prior use of peat pots in their operations. Within this 12%, respondents estimated that peat pots comprised less than 3% of their total container consumption (Dennis et al., 2010). These figures support a general consensus that the widespread use of biocontainers has been largely limited by their higher cost and perceived limitations (Helgeson et al., 2009; Kuehny et al., 2011).
Conventional plastic containers remain popular given their ability to provide consistent performance (e.g., comparable wet/dry strength, compatibility with equipment) in production systems. This effectively removes one of the many possible variables a grower must contend with when attempting to produce a uniform crop of high-quality plants. The price of plastic still remains relatively inexpensive and economically accessible to ornamental crop growers (Evans and Hensley, 2004; Helgeson et al., 2009). For its cost, plastic is strong, lightweight, and versatile. These properties make it fully compatible with mechanized production processes and ideal for shipping (Evans and Hensley, 2004; Hall et al., 2010; Helgeson et al., 2009).
Given the reliability of plastic, growers—especially growers with large operations—are hesitant to move toward any container that they feel may pose a risk to their crop or be difficult to implement in their existing production practices (Dennis et al., 2010; Hall et al., 2009). Despite this aversion to risk, greenhouse growers (in contrast with nursery growers and nursery/greenhouse growers) ranked issues of compatibility as a minor barrier, indicating that perhaps flexibility in production practices, equipment, and crops may allow for greater adoption of biocontainers (Dennis et al., 2010).
Although some published research has quantified biocontainer resistance to puncturing and crushing as indicators of container resiliency in production processes (Evans and Karcher, 2004; Evans et al., 2010), the current range of biocontainers on the market have yet to be thoroughly tested in the mechanized systems required for high throughput production of crops grown in greenhouses. As shown in this article, in situ commercial testing is needed to assess impacts on system efficiency beyond container breakage (e.g., time to process).
Furthermore, previous biocontainer growth studies under research greenhouse conditions have focused exclusively on hand irrigation as a means of water delivery (Evans and Hensley, 2004; Evans and Karcher, 2004). However, commercial greenhouses often rely on a variety of irrigation methods beyond overhead watering (e.g., drip irrigation and ebb-and-flood irrigation)—each with its own pattern of initial wetting and saturation that could potentially impact biocontainer durability during crop production.
This work reports findings from two separate, but complimentary studies. The first is a series of interrelated experiments designed to determine whether biocontainers can withstand the rigors of high throughput, commercial greenhouse production—namely, semimechanized filling, transplanting, handling, and shipping. In addition, this study includes two successive growth trials (drip irrigation only) intended to determine if container root zone conditions, and ultimately plant shoot growth, are affected by container type. The second study expands on the first set of growth trials, as well as the existing body of biocontainer research, through the inclusion of an irrigation method factor. Measures of plant growth and container strength were conducted to determine the impact of drip irrigation, hand watering, and ebb-and-flood irrigation on crop and container performance. The combined product of these efforts contributes to the growing body of biocontainer research while helping professional growers make more informed decisions on whether these plastic pot alternatives can be incorporated in their own operations.
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