The green industry, also known as environmental horticulture, refers to a wide variety of suppliers, producers, distributors, installers, firms, and businesses involved in horticulture in the United States. It is usually divided into nursery and floriculture crops and is the number one agricultural commodity in five northeastern U.S. states. Nationally, the number of producers continues to decline and profit margins are typically low, leaving little room for growers to absorb significant increases in costs or decreases in revenues. Unlike farmers who produce field crops, nursery and greenhouse firms bear the entire price, market, and production risks because these crops have had no government support programs (Brumfield, 2010). The importance of knowing carbon emissions from the green industry is escalating as climate change data continue to emerge. Such emission could come from a variety of sources related to horticultural production including nurseries, greenhouses, wholesale distribution firms, transportation, landscape and design services, and retail operations (Hall, 2010). In addition, efforts are underway to reduce the use of petroleum-based inputs in crop production systems because of the high waste streams involved. Growers will have an incentive to conserve resources in the future to ensure the longevity of their operations. Promoting environmental sustainability throughout their operations may also be crucial in maintaining a customer base that is increasingly aware of environmental issues (Hall et al., 2010). Additionally, researchers have found that consumers in the midwestern United States are willing to pay more for plants that were produced in biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable pots (Yue et al., 2011).
A reduction of certain inputs could reduce the environmental impacts of horticultural businesses. One such resource is plastic, used for a variety of purposes in ornamental crop production systems including propagation, production, packaging, transportation, as a marketing vehicle, and as a covering for production structures. For example, recent research found that 16% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of petunia (Petunia ×hybrida) production are linked to the traditional plastic containers used to grow the plants (Koeser et al., 2014). Both the manufacturing and disposal of agricultural plastics exhibit large environmental burdens. Plastics used in agricultural practices are challenging to recycle due to contamination problems or ultraviolet light degradation (Hall et al., 2010). Consequently, replacing plastic pots with alternative materials can reduce the environmental impact of crop production (Garthe and Kowal, 1993).
The available alternative containers are made from a variety of animal and plant materials, including feathers, manure, rice hulls, and straw. Some decompose quickly and are biodegradable, often referred to as biocontainers (Nambuthiri et al., 2015). Using alternative containers increases the sustainability of an operation by reducing reliance on petroleum and minimizing disposal issues. Alternative containers, except the one made from recycled plastic-fiber mix, have greater compression strength than plastic containers although they may not be “compostable” by ASTM standards (Wang, 2013). This characteristic would decrease landfill space and supports other research citing that alternative containers decompose more quickly than traditional plastic (Candido et al., 2008; Evans and Karcher, 2004).
Research to date suggests that alternative containers can produce plants with similar or better performance than plants grown in plastic containers in the greenhouse when water supply is sufficient (Evans and Hensley, 2004; Lopez and Camberato, 2011; Nambuthiri and Ingram, 2014). However, the durability of alternative containers can be an issue for certain crops with production times longer than 1 year (Li et al., 2015).
If alternative containers are acceptable substitutes for traditional plastic containers from a production standpoint, it is necessary to look at the use of alternative containers from an economic perspective to encourage their use. Specifically, useful information could be gleaned from a comparison of the costs associated with alternative containers relative to that of industry-standard plastic containers.
This study translates horticultural production data into a cost analysis applicable to commercial nursery and greenhouse operations. We estimated the COP for two types of ornamental crops grown in four types of biodegradable containers in above-ground nursery systems. These COP budgets are a useful tool for growers in that they provide an information base to assist with choices involving risk, crop selection, type of inputs, expansion, and pricing (Hinson et al., 2007).
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