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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.


100% behind this. I have about 500 stacked behind the shed, and as we are awaiting the last frost to start bedding out will have another 50 or so by months end.

My local garden centre gives away pots & trays, but do not take them back, all is needed is a small space, [say 10 x 10 ft with a 4 ft fence around it] that we can bring our pots back & dump them in for recycling.

I am going to discuss it with them this Sunday.

Oliver Hitch says:
20 April 2012

This would be great

I don’t really see why plants need to be sold in plastic pots at all. I cannot believe it isn’t technically possible to grow on the plants is fibre containers that will stand up to the wear and tear of display and sale and can then be planted straight into the soil if desired – or easily broken open to allow the roots to spread. One of our local garden centres [Blooms of Bressingham – part of the Garden Centres Group with numerous branches] does take back plastic pots and makes a small donation to charity for each one. It is ludicrous that local councils are increasingly picky over what types of plastic they will take in the recycling bin; they should take the lot and sort it. Most of it, like pots, tubs and coat hangers, could actually be reused for its original purpose but ends up going to landfill or incineration.

Georgie says:
25 April 2012

I have had quite a few plastic plant pots in my time, so what I ended up doing was to buy a larger decorative pot and medium plain pot for my plants, so that gave plants more room to grow and the horrible plastic pots I have crushed down and put them in between the large and medium pots so as to use them as a drainage system. It works and gets rid of them from around the garden..

Faith Brown says:
25 April 2012

I must have hundreds of pots stacked up and though I do reuse them many could be recycled. I am all for this.

Keen gardener says:
25 April 2012

I have hundreds of pots of all different sizes collected across 30 years of gardening. Last year I decided to try to reduce the number and not being able to recycle them emailed all the local schools to ask if they would like them. Many responded both secondary and primary and I gave each a large black sack full of assorted sizes. I got the email addresses from the local authority web site and only needed to send one email. Although this will not solve the problem it will ensure some useful recycling.

Jane says:
25 April 2012

Thats a good idea giving back to the community

I am probably untypical in that I rarely buy plants, but grow a lot of stuff, mainly vegetables, from seed, many of which are either sown in pots (e.g. sweetcorn, courgettes, beans), or transplanted to pots (e.g. tomatoes and peppers). Therefore, rather than looking to recycle pots I am more likely to be looking to replace any that have been damaged, so periodically I actually have to buy a few. In all I guess I have over 300, in sizes ranging from 5 to 30cm. Most are either 7, 13 or 25cm, and are stackable within each size, so don’t take up much storage space. The 7cm ones are the most in demand, and it is mainly this size where replacements are occasionally needed. Some of my 25cm are old terra cotta (clay) pots, and these do take up a lot of storage space when not in use.

Jane says:
25 April 2012

I have a large collection of pots, there should be a central point in each council for collection of pots, this should be made known to the sellers at point of sale, especially the garden centers and big superstores. If everyone took back the pots it would work well. The pots should be recyclable, we need to make these small changes as landfill is filling up.

Sheila says:
25 April 2012

Plastic Pots

I thought you might be interested to know that both Whitehall Gardening Centres have been recycling customer’s plastic pots for several years ans continue to do so. If they can do it, why can’t they all??

Chris in Rugby says:
26 April 2012

I am a moderator of our local Freegle group.

Many people use our group to get rid of excess pots without sending them to landfill, and many people are glad to receive them. All you have to do is post an “Offer” or “Wanted” advertisement on your local group site.

Our local garden centre, Bloom’s, used to have a facility for collecting used plastic pots for recycling. I found this very useful because, typically, I would take my excess pots of one particular size and go home with someone else’s pots of a different size.

Sadly Bloom’s don’t offer this facility any more.

Sutton (GLC) now recycles what they describe as “plastic food trays” and “margarine tubs and yoghurt pots” all of which go in one green bin with cans/paper/bottles. Is there any reason why plastic pots etc should not be put in recycling bins under this specification?

gillypay says:
28 April 2012

I have had ’00’s and Freecycle is indeed an excellent way to dispose of them. “One woman’s rubbish is another’s treasure…….”

Overall, however, I think the garden centres should do more. I feel so guilty buying a plant purely because of the pot it is in. The coir one’s are good but hideously expensive and almost too nice for the purpose of transporting your plant from garden centre to your garden.

More definitely needs to be done.

If anyone has a template for making a plastic pot scarecrow, I’d like to receive it !!

paul says:
29 April 2012

i do have a template for making a plastic pot scarecrow

Jen says:
5 May 2012

Sad to see that Freegle and Freecycle were not mentioned in the article. I am a plantaholic raising loads from seeds and cuttings so am always looking for free pots. I collect them from friends and, when I get too many of a sort I don’t use, long toms or the square ones roses come in, I advertise them on the local Freegle site. Someone always wants them. I also use Freegle or Freecycle to get rid of or source gardening tools, cutting, unwanted plants, seedlings, even gave away a 50 year old lawn marker as the lawn is now flower beds. Please Which, run an article on these recycle groups and all the exciting things which are happpening all over the country. In my experience, no matter how hard we try, the local authority refuses to publicise them.

I also run a local gardening club which ‘trades’ plants etc for a local ‘currency’, similar to a Local Trading and Exchange System (LETS) we meet once a month in different members gardens during the Spring and Summer and ‘trade’ and chat, We’ve been going 3 years now and have about 15 members. This is another place I source plant pots and I pay 5 Bridges (our local currency) for a box or bin bag full.

Personally I think as little as possible should be put in landfill. Most people are just too lazy to find alternatives and then blame manufacturers for our wasteful habits. Freegle etc help save resources, re-use and bring communities together

John Dingley says:
5 May 2012

Freegle is the way to go. With little or no effort on your part, just accumulate a quantity of pots and post them on your local Freegle group and someone will soon be around to take them. Find your local group at http://ilovefreegle.org

Faith Brown says:
5 May 2012

Freegle attracts me but I am a bit chary of getting into something I cannot cope with. The disclaimer about protecting yourself is a bit off-putting.

Jen says:
6 May 2012

i’ve been Freegling for years Faith and the only annoyance is some members saying they will collect at a certain time and not turning up. Not important if its just a bag of pots but annoying if its a 3 piece suite and the new one is due. Its just common sense really. Ask the person who wants them to give you their phone number and you ring them. If you are worried ask them to call during the day, if need be when someone else is in the house. Or arrange to leave the pots next to the gate on a certain day for them to pick up.
But my experience is that Freegle and Freecycle members are great. I’ve met some really nice people and would recommend it to everyone

IsRight says:
22 June 2012

Hi – I’ve currently a large collection of unwanted used plantpots.
If you can collect from Crystal Palace or know of anyone who can they are there for the taking.

Faith Brown says:
6 May 2012

That’s really helpful Jen, and some useful suggestions too. Thanks!

Tanya says:
7 May 2012

Like many i have a big collecton of flowerpots from years of gardening .
Havent been able to find anywhere locally to recycle .
Garden centres say it costs too much to steam clean pots to eliminate P&D that recycling is not an option.
My local council advise me there arent facilities for recycling ‘that type of plastic’ in the area .
Havent found anyone in this area who wants them on freecycle as we all seem to be in the same boat .
Have given a load to charity shops , but not sure how many they use , could well end up in the bin.!

More ideas how to solve this one gratefully recieved.
Perhaps the sheer numbers of responsible gardeners and the power of the ‘Which’ name can actually shift some ground on the garden centres with this one.
perhaps a small deposit on the pots to encourage people to recycle ( like the pop bottles in the old days) !

“An average of 39 plastic pots for the 1,006 Which? members we surveyed seemed a rather conservative figure to me.” Pah! I have 511 plastic pots in my “shed”. And I have stopped accumulating them for the past five years at least! I do still re-use 80 or so each year, but Garden Centres should TAKE THEM BACK!