Summer Flowers and Plastic Waste: One Innovative Project Helps Recycle Pots, Flats and Trays

Author: Mary Alice Blackstock

With summertime already here, many folks are working hard to keep their gardens in tip-top shape. Their gardens might be beautiful, but there are some serious consequences of planting: high quantities of plastic waste.

Plastic is used in almost every aspect of planting from mulch film to plant covers. For this reason, agricultural plastics are becoming more and more prominent in the lives of planters and farmers, specifically those with large-scale operations. As of 2012, the agricultural plastic film market alone was worth $5.87 billion, and experts estimate that the United States agriculture generates more than 1 billion pounds of waste plastic annually*.

Because the demand for agricultural plastics is increasing, the need for cost-effective recycling options is also rising. To expand recycling options for agricultural plastics in the state, Waste Reduction Partners (WRP) in the Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service along with the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission developed the NC Agricultural Recycling Project.  

“Each year, North Carolina nurseries have hundreds of thousands of containerized plants for sale across the state and beyond,” said Terry Albrecht, Waste Reduction Partners section chief. “These planting activities create thousands of tons of discarded agricultural plastic pots, trays and flats each year. Our goal with this project was to encourage more agricultural containers recycling or reuse.” 

The majority of recycling efforts within the NC Agricultural Recycling Project are targeted toward large acreage growers as cost-effective recycling solutions are far more accessible on a larger scale. This left many smaller scale nurseries, retailers and landscapers without effective solutions for recycling.  

Recognizing this lack of recycling resources, the WRP teamed up with state farmers markets to develop a solution to agricultural plastic recycling for small-scale farmers and personal gardeners. 

Beginning three years ago, the NC Agricultural Recycling Project organized collection sites at the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market west of Greensboro and the Raleigh State Farmers Market. These sites are used to collect nursery containers, which are not recyclable through curbside recycling programs.

The public can drop off plastic nursery containers, including pots, flats, trays and cell packs to the sites, which are independently managed by the farmers market managers. Once the sites are full, designated recycling vendors will collect the containers at no cost.

While the recycling aspect of the sites has been successful, volunteers and staff noticed a different use emerging from the sites. 

“When the sites were first launched, we actually noticed a lot of people taking plastic containers to be reused or exchanged,” said Albrecht. “Customers would pick up stacks of specific pot sizes or trays that they needed while dropping off containers they already used. To ensure that customers could reuse the containers in a safe way, our project team quickly provided necessary guidance on plastic cleaning and sanitation methods.” 

In the first quarter of 2019, 16.6 tons of plastic were collection and processed for recycling. The NC Agricultural Plastics Program projects that 66 tons will be collected by the end of the year.

For more information, visit the North Carolina Agricultural Plastics Recycling website at:, or contact Jan Foster, with the WRP, at (828) 553-3530 or by email at


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