Floriculture sales in the United States totaled $5.87 billion in 2014 [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2015], of which potted herbaceous perennials [excluding hardy/garden chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum ×morifolium)] represented $742 million (13%) of total sales from just under 203 million units. About 107 million (62%) of these perennials were produced in #1 to #2 trade gallon-sized containers, for a total market value of $457 million. Horticultural containers are predominately manufactured from petroleum-based plastics (Evans and Hensley, 2004). Based on calculations updated with recent wholesale data (Schrader, 2013; USDA, 2015), more than 16,400 Mg of petroleum-based plastic were consumed in 2014 for the manufacture of #1 and #2 trade gallon containers used to produce herbaceous perennials in the United States.
Researchers reported that most (74%) nursery and greenhouse crop producers use containers manufactured with recycled petroleum plastics (Dennis et al., 2010). In addition, more than 75% of plant containers used by container-crop producers are recyclable (Yue et al., 2010). However, these findings do not indicate the total amount of recycled plastics used or the relative proportion of virgin plastics used to manufacture new plant containers. Diversion of used plant containers into recycling programs is uniquely problematic for horticultural containers because of ultraviolet degradation and the potential presence of pesticide residues (Hall et al., 2010). Thus, despite efforts to reduce plastic container waste by recycling, petroleum-based plastic containers continue to raise environmental concerns for container-crop producers.
Containers made from bioplastics and biocomposites may offer an environmentally friendly and effective alternative to larger petroleum-based plastic plant containers. Research conducted by Kratsch et al. (2015) using prototype #1 trade gallon plant containers manufactured from biocomposites and bioplastics yielded positive plant growth and container quality results when compared with conventional petroleum-plastic containers. In addition, commercially available paper fiber containers dip-coated with bio-based polyurethane produced plants of equal quality compared with plants grown in petroleum-plastic control containers (Kratsch et al., 2015; McCabe et al., 2014). However, these trials were conducted in research facilities and have not been tested in commercial cropping schemes. A wider variety of crop cultural practices and production environments may affect the performance of bioplastic containers and plant growth in these containers differently and affect the ease of use by commercial crop producers. Research has shown that ease of implementation strongly affects commercial grower adoption of sustainable practices (Hall et al., 2009). To ensure that the use of these containers would not be prohibitive, if and when they become commercially available, we performed a coordinated trial in commercial nursery settings to compare growth of plants in these containers and their appearance and durability to results seen when using conventional petroleum-plastic pots.
Commercial grower trials with new technologies such as soil moisture sensor-controlled irrigation have proven valuable in testing new crop production technologies (Chappell et al., 2013). In addition, smaller bioplastic plant containers have yielded positive results and garnered interest of commercial greenhouse growers for use with annual bedding plant production (Flax et al., 2017). Thus, our objectives were to 1) quantify and compare growth of herbaceous perennials grown in different (predominately unprotected, outdoor) production environments using two types of bioplastic-based biocontainers to plants grown in petroleum-plastic containers and 2) characterize commercial perennial producers’ perceptions of and interest in using bioplastic-based biocontainers in their cropping systems through a series of questionnaires and qualitative assessments of plant shoot and root quality and container quality.
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