For many of us, plastic is a major feature in our gardens, from plastic plant pots, compost bins and cloches to plant labels, bird feeders and the sheeting used to suppress weeds. Even lawnmowers and garden tools frequently have plastic components.
It’s estimated that 500 million plant pots and seed trays are sold every year. The majority are sent to landfill or incinerated – very little is recycled and there are few facilities to do so. A large quantity of fossil fuel is used in the production of plastic pots, which take around 500 years to decompose.
Gradually, as more information is published about the consequences of single-use plastic, garden centres, nurseries and manufacturers are making it easier for us to reduce, reuse and recycle the plastic we use in our gardens. But there’s a lot we can do to avoid plastic altogether.
Here are some ideas for how to use less plastic in the garden.
Reducing plastic use
Reduce the amount of plastic you use by simply not buying it. It’s not as hard to avoid as you may think. There’s a growing number of non-plastic alternatives for tools, plant pots and other materials.
Biodegradable pots are made using materials such as coir (made from coconut husks), wood chips, rice husks, miscanthus or seaweed. There are two types: those that last a few months and can be planted straight into the soil, where they break down quickly, allowing the plant roots to grow through them into the soil; and those made using bamboo, rice husks and latex, which last for a few years and can be thrown onto your home compost heap when the time comes. A small number of garden centres and nurseries use biodegradable pots, while some actively encourage gardeners to return plastic pots so they may reuse or recycle them. Check your local garden centre or nursery to see what their policy is. You can also make your own pots using newspaper or toilet roll holders.
When buying bare-root trees, hedging, roses and perennial plants, it’s a good idea to check with the supplier that the plants are wrapped in paper rather than plastic packaging (especially if buying online). Choose alternatives to tools and garden equipment made with plastic, such as those with wooden or metal handles. Choose or make a wooden compost bin, rather than buying a plastic one, and use wooden or recycled plant labels.
Reusing plastic in the garden
Taking good care of existing plastic is a good way to ensure you don’t have to keep buying it, because you can reuse it for several years. Use plant pots again and again for new seedlings, cuttings and plants, or donate them to friends, neighbours or charities. Schools, allotment societies or gardening clubs may welcome extra pots. Take good care of your propagator trays and lids, using tape to fix any cracks in them rather than replacing them straight away. Keep your garden tools in good condition by cleaning and oiling them regularly, as necessary, and don’t leave them outside where they’ll develop rust. Reuse compost bags to store compost, turn leaves into leaf mould and use plastic bottles to store liquid food or make a compost scoop.
Check online or call to see if your council recycles plant pots. They are rarely taken in household collection schemes but some larger recycling centres will accept them. It’s worth calling your local garden centre or nursery to see if they offer a pot recycling or reusing scheme. If they don’t, ask them to consider introducing one.
Recycling only works if you buy recycled products. You can buy a number of products made using recycled plastic, including plant labels, water butts, seed trays, clothes pegs and heated propagators. Search online or ask retailers to give you more information before buying a product.
It’s also worth knowing which plastic is recyclable, as much of it is not. There are many plastic-based products that won’t ever break down and can’t be recycled. Typically, the firm plastic used to make plastic bottles is recyclable, especially clear or white-coloured plastic. Other colours are less likely to be recycled, while certain types of plastic, such as PVC and polystyrene, are difficult to recycle and are therefore not recycled.
Most plastic items and packaging have a symbol attached, which lets you know what type of plastic it’s made from. It’s a good idea to learn the different symbols so you can then check with your local authority to see which types of plastic are recycled in your area. See recyclenow.com for information on the different plastic symbols and what they mean.
Plastic in teabags
If you’ve ever wondered why you find pieces of fine mesh in your compost heap, it’s because the majority of teabags contain polypropylene to seal the edges of the teabags. Pressure is mounting for manufacturers to eliminate it from their products. In the meantime, avoid plastic by using ‘pyramid’ teabags or those with a string and tag, or buy loose leaf tea.