An Introduction to the Impact of Utilizing Alternative Containers in Ornamental Crop Production Systems

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Amy Fulcher 1Department of Plant Sciences, 2431 Joe Johnson Drive, Ellington Plant Science Building Room 252, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996

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Diana R. Cochran 2Department of Horticulture, Iowa State University, 106 Horticulture Hall, Ames, IA 50011

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Andrew K. Koeser 3Department of Environmental Horticulture, CLCE, IFAS, University of Florida – Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, 14265 CR 672, Wimauma, FL 33598

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Ornamental plant production relies almost exclusively on petroleum-based plastic containers. Within the United States, annual plastic use for ornamental plant containers is estimated at 1.66 billion pounds (Schrader, 2013). Worldwide, ≈8% of consumed petroleum is used for plastic production—with equal parts being used as base material and as energy to fuel the manufacturing process (Thompson et al., 2009). Noting the limits of both petroleum supplies and our ability cope with solid waste, many in the manufacturing sector are questioning the sustainability of plastic container production (Thompson et al., 2009). The volume of plastics, coupled with the potential for agrochemical and soil contamination, as well as photodegradation, limit recycling and place an increased burden on landfills. For example, California is estimated to dispose of 11,800 tons of plastic flats, trays, and containers annually (Hurley, 2008).

Studies indicate that consumers view the use of nonrenewable plastics during nursery and greenhouse production as unsustainable (Behe et al., 2013). This can hinder the green industry’s efforts to promote themselves as “green” to environmentally conscious consumers. Recent market research suggests that consumers are willing to pay more for nonplastic or recyclable containers (Khachatryan et al., 2014; Yue et al., 2010) and that consumer product perception is highly influenced by container type compared with other sustainable attributes (Yue et al., 2011). As consumer and industry interest in environmentally responsible products continues, it is important for horticulture professionals to be aware of how currently available alternative containers (and the crops within them) perform in independent trials, as well as update information from early investigations on fiber-based containers (Ruter, 1996, 2000). This information is particularly timely as business differentiation based on social and environmental responsibility is becoming increasingly important due to the maturation of the U.S. green industry (Behe et al., 2013).

Alternative containers are produced using a range of natural materials typically derived from renewable sources or by-products of another manufacturing process. In general, commercially available alternative containers are constructed of pressed fiber or bioplastic. Pressed fiber and biopolymer-based containers are biodegradable or compostable depending on the material and the manufacturing process. Examples of pressed fibers include: bamboo, coir (coconut fiber), composted cow manure, paper, peat, rice hulls, rice straw, spruce fibers, wheat, or wood pulp. The porous nature of these containers can not only increase water use but also reduce root zone temperatures (Nambuthiri et al., 2015). Bioplastics are similar to traditional plastics and are created from either biopolymers (non-petroleum based) or a blend of bio and petrochemical-based polymers. Because of the similarities, they can be used with potting machines and other mechanization without the need to retrofit equipment.

The majority of alternative containers differ from virgin petroleum-based plastic containers in that they are intended to be either plantable or compostable. Beyond this reduction in landfill waste, plantable containers eliminate the container removal, clean up, and disposal costs associated with a landscape installation because they remain intact when plants are transplanted. Compostable containers may be either composted at backyard or industrial compost sites; however, industrially composting adds a significant energy cost to disposal. A third category of alternative containers includes those made from recycled plastic bottles (e.g., water or soft drink). These containers do not biodegrade and therefore cannot be planted or composted.

This workshop provided an overview of alternatives to petroleum-based plastic containers for greenhouse, aboveground container production and pot-in-pot production systems. In doing so, the participating researchers: 1) assessed container strength, durability, and aesthetics at various stages of production and mechanization; 2) characterized water use and root zone temperature associated with alternative containers; 3) assessed container and plant performance both during production and in the landscape; and 4) conducted economic and environmental assessments of production using alternative containers. The articles derived from this workshop provide a unique insight to the use of alternative containers and provide guidance to the green industry and those who advise them.

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Literature cited

  • Behe, B.K., Campbell, B.L., Hall, C.R., Khachatryan, H., Dennis, D.H. & Yue, C.Y. 2013 Consumer preferences for local and sustainable plant production characteristics HortScience 48 200 208

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  • Hurley, S. 2008 Postconsumer agricultural plastic report. 25 Aug. 2014. <http://www.wastexchange.org/upload_publications/CIWMBAgPlasticsReport.pdf>

  • Khachatryan, K., Campbell, B., Hall, C., Behe, B., Yue, C. & Dennis, J. 2014 The effects of individual environmental concerns on willingness to pay for sustainable plant attributes HortScience 49 69 75

    • Crossref
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    • Export Citation
  • Nambuthiri, S., Fulcher, A., Koeser, A.K., Geneve, R. & Niu, G. 2015 Moving toward sustainability with alternative containers for greenhouse and nursery crop production: A review and research update HortTechnology 25 8 16

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ruter, J.M. 1996 Growth and flowering of three garden chrysanthemum cultivars produced in plastic or copper-impregnated fiber containers J. Environ. Hort. 14 191 193

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ruter, J.M. 2000 Biodegradable fiber containers improve the growth of two daylily cultivars Acta Hort. 517 271 274

  • Schrader, J. 2013 Report on the annual consumption of plastics for specialty-crop containers in the United States. 25 Aug. 2014. <http://www.public.iastate.edu/∼bioplastic/Images%20Folder/Container%20plastics%20estimate.pdf>

  • Thompson, R.C., Moore, C.J., von Saal, F.S. & Swan, S.H. 2009 Plastics, the environment and human health: Current consensus and future trends Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B Biol. Sci. 364 2153 2166

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yue, C., Dennis, J.H., Behe, B.K., Hall, C.R., Campbell, B.L. & Lopez, R.G. 2011 Investigating consumer preferences for organic, local, or sustainable plants HortScience 46 610 615

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yue, C., Hall, C.R., Behe, B.K., Campbell, B.L., Dennis, J.H. & Lopez, R.G. 2010 Are consumers willing to pay more for biodegradable containers than for plastic ones? Evidence for hypothetical conjoint analysis and nonhypothetical experimental auctions J. Agr. Appl. Econ. 42 757 772

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Behe, B.K., Campbell, B.L., Hall, C.R., Khachatryan, H., Dennis, D.H. & Yue, C.Y. 2013 Consumer preferences for local and sustainable plant production characteristics HortScience 48 200 208

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hurley, S. 2008 Postconsumer agricultural plastic report. 25 Aug. 2014. <http://www.wastexchange.org/upload_publications/CIWMBAgPlasticsReport.pdf>

  • Khachatryan, K., Campbell, B., Hall, C., Behe, B., Yue, C. & Dennis, J. 2014 The effects of individual environmental concerns on willingness to pay for sustainable plant attributes HortScience 49 69 75

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nambuthiri, S., Fulcher, A., Koeser, A.K., Geneve, R. & Niu, G. 2015 Moving toward sustainability with alternative containers for greenhouse and nursery crop production: A review and research update HortTechnology 25 8 16

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ruter, J.M. 1996 Growth and flowering of three garden chrysanthemum cultivars produced in plastic or copper-impregnated fiber containers J. Environ. Hort. 14 191 193

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ruter, J.M. 2000 Biodegradable fiber containers improve the growth of two daylily cultivars Acta Hort. 517 271 274

  • Schrader, J. 2013 Report on the annual consumption of plastics for specialty-crop containers in the United States. 25 Aug. 2014. <http://www.public.iastate.edu/∼bioplastic/Images%20Folder/Container%20plastics%20estimate.pdf>

  • Thompson, R.C., Moore, C.J., von Saal, F.S. & Swan, S.H. 2009 Plastics, the environment and human health: Current consensus and future trends Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B Biol. Sci. 364 2153 2166

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yue, C., Dennis, J.H., Behe, B.K., Hall, C.R., Campbell, B.L. & Lopez, R.G. 2011 Investigating consumer preferences for organic, local, or sustainable plants HortScience 46 610 615

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yue, C., Hall, C.R., Behe, B.K., Campbell, B.L., Dennis, J.H. & Lopez, R.G. 2010 Are consumers willing to pay more for biodegradable containers than for plastic ones? Evidence for hypothetical conjoint analysis and nonhypothetical experimental auctions J. Agr. Appl. Econ. 42 757 772

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
Amy Fulcher 1Department of Plant Sciences, 2431 Joe Johnson Drive, Ellington Plant Science Building Room 252, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996

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Diana R. Cochran 2Department of Horticulture, Iowa State University, 106 Horticulture Hall, Ames, IA 50011

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Andrew K. Koeser 3Department of Environmental Horticulture, CLCE, IFAS, University of Florida – Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, 14265 CR 672, Wimauma, FL 33598

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Contributor Notes

This article results from the workshop “Impact of Utilizing Biodegradable Containers in Ornamental Crop Production Systems” held 29 July 2014 at the ASHS Conference, Orlando, FL, and sponsored by the Nursery Crops (NUR) Working Group.

Mention of a trademark, proprietary product, or vendor does not constitute a guarantee or warranty of the product by the authors or their respective institutions and does not imply their approval to the exclusion of other products or vendors that may also be suitable.

This project was also supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch project numbers KY011032, MICL02010, TEX09045, TEN00406, MIS211090. More information about this project can be found at http://www.sustainablecontainersandirrigation.com.

The authors wish to acknowledge the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative for support of the project “Impact and Social Acceptance of Selected Sustainable Practices in Ornamental Crop Production Systems,” which led to the development of this workshop and Drew McLean and Gitta Hasing for their critical review of this manuscript.

Corresponding author. E-mail: afulcher@utk.edu.

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