The invention of a light, yet strong, plastic pot in the 1960s changed how we gardened forever. It revolutionised the growing industry and played no small part in the making of the garden centre. The plastic pot meant you could sell plants throughout the year. It led to mechanised potting machines and industrial production of plants. It was a game changer.

In the 1960s plastic dramatically changed the way we garden but now we're starting to see it's impact on the environment and we need to dramatically reduce our usage. Illustration by Vicki Turner.

For younger generations it’s hard to imagine, but autumn and winter was once the only time that trees, shrubs and perennials could be lifted and sold. There were attempts to make cardboard pots, and there was the Heartlands paper pot for annuals and the whale-hide pot for tomatoes (made not from whales, but rigid pitch and fibre) but they all fell apart too quickly, which meant you couldn’t have stock sitting around. Plastic changed all that.

The problem with plastic

Plastic is everywhere in gardening – in netting, fleece, hoses, warm and light clothing, waterproofs, wellingtons and tools. But the downside, as we now know, is that it doesn’t go away. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles. It is thought that the sea contains 51 trillion micro-plastic particles. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea and 99 per cent of all the seabirds on the planet will have consumed plastic. And we are already starting to consume some of that plastic through the flesh of fish and other animals.

As responsible gardeners, if you find a recycling point for plastic pots, do your duty. Wash your pots and stack them neatly.

In some areas, plastic pots are accepted in kerbside recycling. Sixty per cent of our plastic goes abroad to be recycled, in line with government subsidies. If you recycle in the UK, you only get paid for clean, sorted plastic, and this applies to just 40-50 per cent of an average tonne of collected recycling plastic. If you export, you get paid for the full tonne regardless of contamination. This incentivises processing outside of the UK.

There are several disadvantage to this. First, we’re missing a trick: processing plastic could be a lucrative and innovative market, and from an ethical standpoint we should be dealing with our waste at home, not sending it elsewhere. Second, and perhaps more urgently, is that China, the world leader in plastic recycling, recently announced that it would no longer accept contaminated plastic, which is often impossible to recycle. The hunt is now on to find an alternative and in the meantime the recycling is stacking up.

Top tips for responsible gardening

As responsible gardeners, if you find a recycling point for plastic pots, do your duty. Wash your pots and stack them neatly. Here are a few more tips to help you garden gently.

  • Reuse, reuse, reuse: use compost bags as rubbish bags, scrub plastic labels for another year (metal scourers will remove permanent pen ink), and store plastic items, such as pots and propagator lids, out of direct sunlight so that they last longer.
  • Question every bit of plastic that comes into your garden. What will you do with it when you’ve finished with it? Is there another option? Consider buying bamboo products and wooden-handled tools.
  • Visit the Recycle Now website for details of your local options for recycling specific plastics. Recyclable products are marked with a numbered triangular label to indicate what they are made off. Most plastic pots are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, triangular label 2) or polypropylene (PP, triangular label 5). Most kerbside recycling takes Triangular label 2.
  • Buy recycled plastic or biodegradable products where you can.
  • Consider using your recycling. It may be the oldest trick in the book, but the humble yoghurt pot makes an excellent seed pot.

Here's how to create a sustainable garden

Useful information

There are all kinds of popular plastic alternatives to familiar and essential garden materials to try these days. Here's just a selection of what's out there. Do your research and buy wisely.

• Ditch the plastic with bamboo plant markers and gardening scoops. Here's our round up of the best plant markers.

• Even many gardening gloves contain plastic elements. Unlike these 4552-09 gloves from Showa.

• Classic plastic free tools last longer, such as this trowel and garden caddy

• Always make sure that – if you do need to use waste bags – that they're compostable.

• If you've not got a water barrel for collecting water for watering yet. Get one.

• And even your garden entertaining can be eco with everything from picnic rugs to firelighters to bird houses.

• And there are countless other pots made from recycled materials

Filcris Ltd is a large trade stockist and fabricator of recycled plastic products, offering a range of items from landscaping edging to plastic timber, raised beds and composters,

Soparco produces pots, containers and other items made from a high percentage of recycled raw materials for use in horticulture and nurseries,

A Short Walk specialises in eco products and offers recycled garden items including Ecopots – durable, attractive containers made from recycled plastics.

• Plantpak by Crest offers seed trays, modules and gravel trays, all made from 100 per cent recycled plastic. Crest Garden also makes peat-free fibre pots,

Ten tips for gardening plastic free from David Ware, head of eco garden centre EdibleCulture

Our nursery and garden centre EdibleCulture has been selling plastic free for a season. The big difference between us and a lot of other places, is that we don't promote home recycling of plastics. Quite simply, we say: reduce, reuse and then if you have to…recycle.

We want to see less plastics produced and innovative methods to get horticultural products out to people, which is why we developed the compost bag for life, POSIpot and lots of other initiatives that are disruptive, challenge greenwash (when people make unsubstantiated claims about the environmental benefit of a product) and counter profit over environmental benefits. Here are ten things you can do to reduce your plastic use in the garden.

Don’t be afraid to challenge

Ask nurseries or garden centres about their plastic use – Create a conversation about responsible sourcing of gardening products. Vote with your wallet. Also ask online sellers if they offer plastic-free postage and packing; if not, why not?

More like this
Millions of plastic pots go into landfill each year.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Buy local and plastic free

Buy UK-grown plants – bareroot in the winter (fruit trees, soft fruit etc) or use the growing number of nurseries that sell using our POSIpot. Don’t buy imported plants, or plants out of season, don’t be fooled by plants planted in different colour pots claiming that they are recyclable or compostable. Better not to have a plastic pot than something that has a huge hidden environmental impact.

A Melcourt Compost Bag for Life
A Melcourt Compost Bag for Life EdibleCulture

Always buy peat-free compost

And best of all look for nurseries and garden centres selling it in a bag for life form. Look to Melcourt, who are launching this for the new season. Here's our guide to buying peat-free compost.

Ask yourself if you need pesticides

Instead of buying pesticides in plastic packaging find a natural balance with how you cope with pest and disease within your environment. If you are growing certain plants that get a lot of problems from pest and disease stop growing them (cabbages are a classic example) and research alternatives, recognise that plants generally do a lot better outside, consider keeping areas of your garden messy and wild, most pests have natural predators, they need somewhere to live too. Research companion planting, we sell a lot of artichokes as blackfly would much rather live on them than your beans. Then when the ladybird larva arrives it’s a focused point for their activity.


Use plastic free rabbit guards and ties when planting trees

Guards made from recycled cardboard last exactly the correct time it takes for a tree to establish.

Take pleasure in reusing

Treasure pots and trays you already have, if you have plastic, clean and store in a light free environment. Start using terracotta and value its attributes for growing. A great source for old pots is car boot sales or Freecycle.

Nurserymen at EdibleCulture

Avoid plastic pop-up greenhouses or cloches

These do tend to look like a solution or a good idea, but they invariably fall apart in the second year of use and look terrible. Glass is always better.

Use jute netting and string instead of plastic netting and string


With a crop like beans jute is brilliant because you can rip down the whole plant string and all at the end of the season and bung it on the compost heap.


Alys Fowler is a horticulturist, garden writer and Guardian columnist.