An initiative by APLD is connecting the two.

By Sue Goetz CPH, ecoPRO, APLDWA, past President

Anyone in the nursery and garden industry has seen it, piles of empty black nursery pots that create an avalanche in the back of contractors' work trucks. So where do all those pots go? Studies show that 95% of plastic pots end up in landfills. Let that sink in for a moment. You take environmentally friendly steps in landscape design to have clean water, pesticide, and herbicide-free gardens and use sustainable practices, but where are all those empty plastic pots going?

black plastic pots on a landscape installation
Photo credit Sue Goetz

"The same properties — durability, and resistance to degradation — that make plastics so versatile in innumerable applications also make it difficult or impossible for nature to assimilate."

Here is the challenge. There is no feasible process to deal with all that plastic. The existing recycling infrastructure is overwhelmed by the volume of used plastic. In 2018, the public generated 14.5 million tons of plastic and recycled 1.98 million tons, with 10 million tons ending up in landfills. Most black plastic pots end up in landfills because optical readers at the recycling facilities cannot identify them.

Research studies examine the life cycle of plastic pots, from production to disposal, to understand their environmental footprint. The assessment includes factors such as resource consumption, energy usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and the impacts of plastic waste on ecosystems, wildlife, and human health. The overwhelming evidence highlights plastic pots as a significant environmental challenge which underscores the importance of landscape and gardening practitioners to implement sustainable practices. You can find the research papers by clicking here to learn more about the study.

Healthy Pots Healthy Plant initiative
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But this is just the start.

What does this mean for you? Unfortunately, many container alternatives are not yet standard in the industry and cannot compete with the low cost of plastic as it is currently being manufactured so our best practice is to Recycle. Some local businesses and nurseries are taking back pots from customers for people to pick up and reuse. Click here for a list. Home Depot, while not on the list, has some locations that do recycle pots.

stacked black plastic pots
Photo credit Sue Goetz

Call them first to ensure they are still taking pots. Let us know if you can recycle pots or know of a local business that will take them. APLDWA chapter members can share this info on our private Google group. Check with your local public waste facilities and recycling centers to see if they have a program and inquire about their policies regarding plastic pots. Some recycling centers in Seattle accept plastic nursery pots. Some garden stores and nurseries may accept pots for reuse or recycling. Call ahead to inquire about their policies and whether they accept pots from the public. Once you have this info, add it to the specifications of your job, such as where the pots go after planting, and encourage the companies you work with to recycle or repurpose them.

APLD has suggested some wording you could edit and make your own to add to project notes:

To the greatest extent possible, source plants grown in bioplastic or biobased containers or reused or recycled plastic containers. Designer will discuss available options with contractor/supplier and seek locally available recycling options as necessary."

plant in a pot in a garden shop
Photo credit Sue Goetz

The bigger of concern for all of us is, where the waste stream starts, the major consumers of plastic pots, which is the worldwide horticulture growing industry. For them, the process for recycling gets tougher. Preparing the pots for recycling is expensive and time-consuming: All contaminants, such as soil and pesticide residues, must be removed. Pesticide residue lessens the value of plastic. Insufficiently sanitized pots can contaminate plant material and become a financial liability for growers while thorough cleaning results in high collection and sanitation costs.

In 2023, APLD released "The State of the Pot," a report identifying more information needed to gain traction and impact the larger scale of plastic pot manufacturing and consumption. APLD has taken steps to create this initiative to recognize that landscape designers are indirect consumers of these pots via our projects and, therefore, help to perpetuate the demand for these products.

So, if we perpetuate demand, couldn't we also raise awareness and perpetuate demand for more sustainable manufacturing of pots or alternatives? The Healthy Pots Healthy Planet initiative seeks to find better ways to manufacture plastics sustainably, stop using certain resins, be responsible for the carbon footprint and emissions, label Consumer Recycled (PCR) content in plastic pots, and more. APLD is also seeking ways to support the alternative pots industry. Alternative pots are made of natural materials like paper, fiber, manure, or bioplastics. According to the US Department of Agriculture, alternative pots are considered "biobased," meaning products derived from plants and other renewable agricultural, marine, and forestry materials."

APLD is asking for your help to advocate for producing affordable, sustainable options and raise awareness. To affect change and get traction, knowledge is power.

Healthy Pots Healthy Planet Logo

Go to the website There are numerous pages of documentation on what is happening in the industry. Let's raise our collective awareness and voices and give a big push from Washington State. The APLDWA board of directors is asking everyone to participate; please take a minute to sign up for the coalition. Adding your name shows manufacturers and companies that we are demanding more sustainable pots and sustainable manufacturing of plastics used in the industry. Help spread the word and add logos and links to the Healthy Pots Healthy Planet to your website. There are a lot of resources for logos, information, and social media graphics. Let's all join in!