KAI RYSSDAL: Whether you're a gardner or not...you can't help but notice one of the sure signs of spring. Things just seem to turn green and flowery as the weather warms up. The Department of Agriculture says the nursery business is a 16-billion dollar a year industry. That's a lot of flowers. And a lot of left over flower pots, once the plants are in the ground. Most of those pots are made of plastic. Non-recyclable plastic. But some growers are experimenting with...greener...alternatives. Janet Babin has more from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio.
JANET BABIN: Blake Potter keeps a garden year-round, so she goes through a lot of plastic flower pots.
BABIN: Does it ever bother you that they're plastic and if you throw them out, they go to a landfill?
BLAKE POTTER: It does. And I like to buy the ones that sometimes, like, a local farmer will just make ones out of newspaper. Those are my favorite ones to buy.
But she can't always find the paper ones, and the flowers in her cart at Home Depot were in plastic containers that she might have to toss.
Used flower pots can have a second life — they can be ground down into a low-quality resin. But it's a dirty and difficult process, so just a few states recycle them. Many growers, like John Wrenn, are searching for alternatives.
JOHN WRENN: There's Burton in the cowboy hat, that's Teyu in the back, and Tara over there . . .
Wrenn grows about a half a million plants a year on his North Carolina farm, with just a few employees. The small team pulls flower trays from greenhouses and stacks them in mini trucks for delivery. Wrenn's clients include garden centers and grocery stores from Georgia to Virginia.
His customers wanted plastic alternatives, but his options were cost-prohibitive. Until Ball Seed Company introduced its so-called Circle of Life Pots. Company rep Al Newsom:
AL NEWSOM: The pots are made out of rice hulls. It is a byproduct. They're actually manufactured in China.
Rice hulls are what's left over from the harvest. The pots look like brown plastic, but they're surface is rougher. They break down in a landfill within eight months. And you can crush them in your hands with just one try.
WRENN: If you do that . . . [crunch sound] . . . you could probably stick that in the ground, I would imagine.
You could plant both the greenery and the pot, but Ball doesn't recommend it. The roots would grow faster than the pot would degrade.
Rice pots do cost more than plastic containers. Wrenn's dealt with that by cutting the number of plants in his trays. But so far, he's heard no complaints.
WRENN: We were trying to get away from plastic, the cost of plastic containers never comes down. The cost of these pots we're hoping will come down at some point.
Wrenn's theory has begun to play out. Plastic pots are made, of course, with petroleum. Plastic pot prices have shot up 30 to 40 percent this season. But Wrenn found out from Newsom that Rice pot prices have already come down 4 cents in six months.
NEWSOM: Basically it's supply and demand. And plastic price going up, these going down at some point . . . They're going to meet and then it's a no-brainer. Why use plastic at all?
Well one reason is durability. But more biodegradable alternatives continue to crop up. Some growers are experimenting with coconut-based pots, and the USDA and the Nursery Association are developing a pot made from slaughtered chicken feathers.
I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.