University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Increasingly there are products made from recycled materials that you can find for your garden and landscape.   Knowing some of these products, and facts about them, may inspire you and help you to shop “environmentally responsibly”.

Compost is perhaps the first product most think of when they think of recycled solid waste.  According to the latest EPA statistics, 32.5 percent of solid waste is recycled or composted.  Although 62 percent of yard waste is composted, still for landfills I’ve seen figures of between 10 and 30 percent of solid waste being from yard debris and grass clippings.  Buying compost you are not only helping the environment but also the economy.  The EPA estimates that the same amount of yard waste creates seven jobs in composting compared to only two jobs if such waste goes to the landfill.

An increasing number of municipalities, non-profits, and private firms compost each year.  When buying compost, there are several quality standards you might look for including a local one such as from NOFA (Northeast Organic Farm Association) or the USDA Certified Organic seal.  The Seal of Testing Assurance is from the U.S. Composting Council.  If you see none of these, make sure the operation has composted properly—covering the pile to prevent weed seed contamination, heating the pile sufficiently to kill any weed seeds and disease, using proper procedures such as length of time and aeration to make good compost, and not using yard waste containing herbicides and chemicals.  Good compost is one of THE best soil amendments.
With recycled plastic products you may see the term “pre-consumer waste” which refers to virgin plastic, just the scraps and trimmings from manufacturing.  “Post-consumer” recycled
plastic has been used, then reprocessed by a recycler.  Another term you may see is “closed-loop’ recycling, referring to a product remanufactured into the same item such as a soda bottle back into another soda bottle instead of into a flower pot.  Generally, recycled plastic garden products such as some tools, pots, handles, buckets, lumber, and the like have been made from other types of recycled plastic items. 

The bad news is that, according to the EPA, only 3.9 percent of plastic generated in the U.S. is currently recycled.  The good news is that by buying garden products from recycled plastic you are helping to increase the demand for, and so manufacture of, them.  Two billion tons of plastic end up in landfills yearly, just from plastic bottles.  Each pound of the plastic as in water bottles (PET) recycled saves about 12,000 BTUs in energy.  Recycling a ton of plastic bottles saves 318 gallons of gasoline, or the energy to run a refrigerator for a month.  Only 36 recycled soft drink bottles can be used to make a square yard of carpet.

Most garden products made from rubber are made from tires.  Look for such items including mulch, soaker hoses, edging, and paving materials.  Many recycled rubber materials come from Canada or Southeast Asia, while most rubber mulches are made from U.S. materials.  While the good news is that recycled rubber diverts tires from landfills, and 80 percent of the 290 million scrap tires a year are reused (half of those are burned), some are studying whether any leaching occurs from the rubber into the soil.

When looking for lumber and wood products in your gardening, look for the SmartWood Rediscovered label.  This certifies that if the wood in the product had not been previously used, it
would have been wasted to rot or chipping at a landfill.  The Forest Stewardship Council certifies that wood comes from responsibly managed plantations (basically that the trees are cropped
much as an agronomic crop like corn, then replanted).  Check for similar certification on exotic tropical woods, as in some lawn furniture, to ensure they have been harvested responsibly.

Best yet, instead of wood, consider if you can use lumber made with all recycled plastic, or plastic mixed with a material such as sawdust or fiberglass.  It is heavier and more expensive, but lasts longer resisting rot, and never needs repainting or staining.  Such lumber is great for cold frames, raised beds, decks, and lawn furniture.

Look for many items from recycled glass, including bird feeders, pottery, tiles, and even mulch.  Ground and rounded glass for designer mulch, similar to marbles and not sharp, is much more available and used in Europe in a range of colors.  Recycled glass doesn’t look recycled, and glass can be recycled almost indefinitely.

The making of recycled glass uses half the energy required for new glass, generating 20 percent less air pollution and 50 percent less water pollution.  The energy saved from recycling merely one glass container can power a 100-watt light bulb for four hours.  For every ton of glass recycled, over a ton of resources is saved.  Using 50 percent recycled glass in a product cuts mining wastes by 75 percent. 

The main downside to glass recycling is that not all glass is created equal, so some glass that isn’t from containers can’t be recycled into “new” glass.  This includes windows, drinking glasses, and baking glass.   Yet, buying products of recycled glass you are further promoting environmental savings, and the recycling of the over 41 billion glass containers made each year.

Since it breaks down so readily, you may not find many paper products for use in the garden.  What you can look for is recycled paper in packaging, bags, and publications.  Products
using recycled paper include mulch, compost, and molded flower pots. Recycled paper has big environmental benefits such as saving 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space for each ton recovered, with paper making up to 40 percent of solid waste in some areas.  The production of recycled paper uses 80 percent less water, 65 percent less energy, and produces 95 percent less air pollution than new paper production. The energy saved from recycling a foot high stack of newspapers might heat an average home for 17 hours.

Most the recycled aluminum you may find in gardening goods is in decorative products such as sundials, birdbaths, bird feeders, hose holders, weathervanes, plant supports, plant hangers, and patio furniture.  About 50 percent of the aluminum we use is recycled, the rest is sufficient to rebuild a commercial air fleet four times a year!  Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to run a television for three hours or a 100-watt light bulb for 20 hours.  The energy saved from recycling a six-pack is equivalent to driving a car five miles.  Recycling a ton of aluminum cans eliminates four tons of carbon emissions.

Whatever the garden product or material, seek out ones from recycled products where possible and encourage stores to seek and carry them as well.  Most are of as good quality as ones from virgin materials. Buying these will help the economy, the EPA estimating that five times the number of jobs (1.1 million recently estimated) are created through recycling compared to waste disposal.  Buying these will conserve raw materials and landfill space, as well as resources for energy.  According to the National Recycling Coalition, energy savings last year from recycling equaled the amount of electricity consumed by 17.8 million Americans, or the gasoline used by almost 11million passenger cars.

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