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Garden centres, take our plastic pots and recycle them

How many plastic plant pots do you have in your shed, greenhouse or garage? According to our latest survey, the average gardener has 39. And without good recycling schemes, all these pots will be stuck there.

An average of 39 plastic pots for the 1,006 Which? members we surveyed seemed a rather conservative figure to me. So, I did a quick straw poll around the Which? Gardening office: some of my more green-fingered colleagues confessed to hoarding hundreds.

The fact is, most of us don’t want these pots. Some of them are useful for sowing seeds, potting up seedlings or passing on plants to friends, but a lot of them aren’t.

They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, making them difficult to stack, as commenter Dawn told us on our previous plastic pots Conversation:

‘My biggest bugbear is the non-standardisation of them. It is nearly impossible to stack used pots in any sensible way.’

Despite our best intentions, two fifths of us never get around to reusing the pots we’ve saved.

Getting to the root of the recycling problem

Of course, the obvious thing to do is recycle them, but that’s much easier said than done. A third of us put plastic plant pots in our recycling bins, but the type of plastic used to make them (polypropylene) isn’t a priority for many local authorities, so they could end up in landfill.

And as far as I know, only two garden centre chains – Dobbies and Nottcuts – offer a ‘bring back’ your plastic plant pots scheme. This is a real shame, because three quarters of us would find it useful to be able to recycle our plant pots more easily.

And it’s perfectly doable: according to the British Plastics Federation, ‘plastic plant pots are eminently recyclable and useable’. They could be made into all kinds of useful things if enough of them are recycled.

Garden centres need to grow up

Both the British Plastics Federation and a recycling company who ran a pilot pot recycling scheme last year told me that if enough garden centres offered a ‘bring back’ scheme, there would be enough pots to interest recycling companies (as long as the pots are clean).

This view was echoed by Mike Parker, who runs a recycling plant. He told us it’s currently hard to turn a profit recycling pots:

‘We run a recycling plant in Essex that only recycles pots (polypropylene ) and trays (polystyrene). The problem we have is actually that we cannot get enough of the pots and trays to operate in a profitable way.

With an estimated 500 million pots in circulation every year, there are certainly enough to satisfy recyclers. The garden centre industry just needs to step up to the mark here and accept responsibility for the plastic pot mountain it’s creating.

If Dobbies and Notcutts can offer a ‘bring back’ scheme, why can’t The Garden Centre Group, Homebase, B&Q and others? It would help make garden centres – and gardening – greener.


Has anybody tried leaving taking their plants out of the pots and leaving those empty pots at the garden centre?

I agree with freegle or freecycle etc but think that the garden centres should be doing more.

WGoss says:
16 July 2012

I’m just sortg out gdn n garage 4 mum – now got 2 black bags of plastic flower pots. What to do with them ? I thought it was Gov policy that if a retail outlet sold an item that could (should ?!) b recycled – ie batteries, plastic flower pots – they had to take them back. ‘Phoned local – and excellent – nursery, (Manor Nurseries, nr Chichester), but they said ‘No’. Emmm. Perhaps they – the whole sector – needs some encouragement. Good to see Which ? investigating and prompting a conversation. But in mean time I’ll contact freegle.

I think that the nurseries that provide the plants that we are buying should be more responsible with regard to these. They are the ideal place for a plant pot swap as mentioned above. Perhaps as also mentioned above we need a better solution to all these unrecyclable pots. Particularly irritating are the ones that you buy growing herbs from the supermarkets in. Growing herbs that don’t stay growing for very long… Tax them perhaps and more and better alternatives will appear on the market?

Is Right says:
5 August 2012

After advertising on Gumtree and Freegle my unwanted used plant pots and trays were taken by others greatfully.

I use Freecycle as a way of trying to get these back into the community – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t – depends on the time of the year. Will definitely try the schools idea and the local Dobbies. Biodegradable must be the best in the long run and I wouldn’t mind paying the extra few pence that it would inevitably cost.

The question is how do we, as consumers, create an effective lobby to make this happen?

We could boycott garden centres that don’t recycle pots, but how many of us don’t a Dobbies (Tesco’s!!!) or a Notcutts on our doorstep.

We could just take surplus (clean!!) pots back to the garden centre where we bought them (if we can remember which one it was!!). They would probably just chuck them in the bin. However it might start to bring it home to them what a waste of resources this is and just how many of them there are out there.

The second point, made by a reader, is why are they all different shapes and sizes when, ostensibly they purport to be the same, i.e. 3in; 4in; 2 litre; 3 litre; etc.? I really have no idea how consumers could make this happen. However, if there were to be effective recycling then the storage problem would largely solve itself.

Eric G says:
19 September 2014

For anyone reading this in the US, all Lowe’s home improvement centers accept plastic pots for recycling: http://www.lowes.com/cd_Garden+Center+Gets+Greener+With+Recycling_283670888_.

Hope British retailers have come around too in the two years since this article first appeared 🙂

Caroline Vodden says:
30 March 2015

According to advice received today (and I checked on their website too) Stewarts Garden Centres in Dorset (Broomhill and Christchurch) have an area where customers can leave and take old plants pots. This is such good news, as I have a great stack and have never been able to bring myself to put them in the rubbish!

Pam Farr says:
29 May 2015

Wyevale used to take back flower pots but that stopped some time ago.

Liz Wood says:
3 December 2015

Hello – not sure if this is still going but have a look at a company called “A Short Walk”. They operate a scheme “Pot to Product”, where Garden Centres take them back.
Check the website for your area.


The only long term, sensible, solution is for major flower producers to stop using non-recyclable materials.
Preferably, also stop using all plastic, even recyclable plastic..

The Gov, should also consider banning the future sale of PVC pots and sleeves.

Bob says:
6 July 2018

Totaly agree with above, councils have an obligation to do more than just say we will take this type of plastic but we dont want that type. Its all about what they can sell not about recycling, everything we use should be recycled.

INTCO manufactures and sells GREENMAX EPS Compactors or Densifiers and Recycling machines or System, purchases back compressed EPS scraps, and reuses them to make frame products.

Almost all my plastic plant pots are recycled – some go back very many years when I bought lots for 1p each from a local hardware shop that sold plants in the late spring.

If we took the unwanted ones back to garden centres to be given/sold on to customers it would take away their profitable business in vastly overpriced shiny new ones. Maybe we need to use those empty high street shops as recycling centres where anything that could be reused can be taken. At present charity shops seem full of books, CDs, old clothes and pottery junk. Maybe there are better candidates for recycling?

We have a local charity that sends unwanted tools – from spanners to sewing machines – in container-loads out to Africa for people to start their own businesses. Run by volunteers who collect, sort, refurbish all the useful stuff that comes in from all over the country. We could do with the same for people in this country perhaps?

craig cooksey says:
29 September 2018

Having previously worked in a recycling plant, and being a keen gardener, I have been following the challenges of plant pot recycling for a while now, and have been trying to research companies who would be prepared to work with me to set up a regional recycling arrangement across southern Scotland. The recent Gardeners World feature on the recycling of plant pots highlights the scale of the problem, and the selective nature of the current practice within the recycling industry. I refuse to accept that black plastic from plant post can not be processed, recycled and made into useful products with a sustainable lifespan.

It is worth watching this video if you are interested in gardening as it discusses the importance of the minute fungus attached to roots that provides nutrients and water to the plant. And shows the difference.

The worked example concentrates on a years cycle of tomato growing in Holland using the Waterboxx.

When you consider that in a green house using a microdrip a sq. metre of tomato plants require 320 litres and a Waterboxx uses 40 litres over a season you can appreciate the benefits of perhaps watering your tomatoes monthly!

The Waterboxx is reckoned to be used for a decade which is not bad given the nature of most plastics in an outside environment.

We will be experimenting with 10 next year [2019] in the open next year but cannot currently source the mycorrhizae.

Michael Fletcher says:
1 August 2019

Extend the carrier bag tax to cover other nuisance waste products