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Sustainability Strides at the 3M Open

It’s a familiar eyesore for the avid gardener: a stack of plastic pots collecting dust in the corner of a shed or yard (or apartment). Research estimates that over 4 billion plastic plant containers are used each year in the U.S., amounting to more than 754,000 metric tons of plastic annually. A staggering 98% of plastic plant pots end up in landfills, where they’ll take centuries—if not millennia—to break down. And because the black plastic used for plant pots interferes with scanners used to sort recycled items, recycling usually isn’t an option. In recent years, recycling efforts have grown even more strained due to global decrease in demand for recycled plastic: the leading plant pot recycling program in the U.S.ceased operations in 2022. 

In YEAR, Danny Mishek set out to create an alternative to single-use plastic plant pots. As a second-generation manufacturer, he knew about building products for long lifespans and complicated building criteria. But he wondered if plant-based plastics engineered to break down quickly could be used for plant pots. To his mind, fewer pots would accumulate in landfills, and the horticulture industry could meet growing consumer demand to become more sustainable. The catch? He had to create a product that was at par with (or better than) the industry-dominant petroleum pots.

“I realized that to bring our product into the market—to commercial growers to retailers to home gardeners—we couldn’t sacrifice,”  Mishek says. “Certain things from cosmetics to quality tolerance, for the corporate growers especially, they don't want to sacrifice. They've had generations of promotions and brand loyalty and so their customers are used to looking for a logo or a style of pot. I had to compliment that—and it all had to be sustainable.”

Years of design iterations later, Mishek and his Minnesota-based company SelfEco have created a pot that can be planted and broken down in a home garden, made from nutrient-boosted Ingeo PLA. And the SelfEco pot isn’t just better for the earth—it also boosts plant growth. 

SelfEco Takes Root

Before his sustainable planting pot came to be, Mishek was part-owner and president of manufacturer VistaTek, where he became the president of his regional chapter of the Society of Plastics Engineers. He quickly became disillusioned with the after-life pathways for plastic. 

“In the back of my mind, I kept thinking, ‘Why do we need to build things that last forever?’” he says. 

Like many industries, commercial horticulture faced pressure from consumers to become more sustainable. But the volume of plants potted and sold through retail channels requires automated and robotic planting systems. These systems can damage or destroy softer organic materials, like peat moss or coconut coir, making these materials cost- and time-prohibitive. Plus, these pots are easily damaged during planting and transport, making them less attractive to retailers—their density and moisture retention can cause root entanglement or rot. 

Mishek began to consider materials that could hold up during potting and transport, but wouldn’t stick around for years after use. Because Ingeo eventually decomposes with moisture, he thought it might be possible to make an Ingeo-based plant pot that could survive packaging and transport before breaking down in a home garden. 

From Kickstarter to Creation

After conducting extensive research and talking to horticulture experts at trade shows, Mishek set up a Kickstarter campaign to fund a prototype pot made from Ingeo, which raised $25,000 in 24 hours.

From this Kickstarter, SelfEco plant pots were born. SelfEco combines Ingeo with plant food, accelerating Ingeo’s breakdown and giving plants a nutrient boost. The pots are designed with tear-out walls, which create instant soil exposure when planted and make it easier for roots to grow properly. Because they’re planted directly into the ground alongside the plant, the pots begin to break down in their first growing season. Remnants can be tilled into the soil for the following grow season, or industrially composted.

The best part, for gardeners, plants, and the planet alike: plants in SelfEco pots outperform those stored in petroleum-based plastic. These pots created double the yield in an Iowa State University study, and offer visible benefits for root and foliage growth based on in-house testing. 

Becoming a National Brand

ADD YEARS later, SelfEco continues to grow, too. Recently, SelfEco has partnered with national home garden brand Proven Winners to provide their customers with a compostable pot option. 

The two brands worked together, designing several iterations over three years to ensure not only the best quality, but also a pot that could appease each stop along the supply chain. The pots needed to function in industrial growers’ machines, hold up in humid greenhouse environments, and look good on retailers’ shelves. Mishek’s team tweaked their Ingeo formulation, tested compostable inks and label films for branding, and worked with the Proven Winners team to create a pot that could work for every party in the process. 

The Proven Winners partnership is bringing more SelfEco pots to gardens across the country. And Mishek is excited about what’s to come for SelfEco as end-users understand the benefit of SelfEco pots. And despite all the benefits to the plants and the earth, even if it ends up diverted to the landfill, the pot remains a more sustainable option to petroleum pots.

“If you don't feel comfortable planting the pot in the ground, then you can just throw it in the  landfill and that's still a better decision than putting a petroleum pot in the landfill,” says Mishek.

“The ability to amplify what we’re trying to do with diversion, recycling, and composting and the educational piece happens at a much greater scale right here.”

Wayne Koeckeritz, Eco-Products

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Recent Events

TCT Asia 2023

September 12 - 14 | NECC Shanghai

NatureWorks teamed up with Jabil at our booth to demonstrate our collaboration and the first ever Ingeo PLA SLS powder, PLA 3110P. We also talked about using Ingeo in 3D printing applications like medical prototypes and large format prints.

BPI Summit

September 13 - 14 | Minneapolis

The inaugural Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) Summit kicked off in Minneapolis and it was a great collective of industry experts, manufacturers, composters, and media. Kris Coperine, NatureWorks’ Circular Economy Specialist, moderated a panel on the very successful Minneapolis Food Scraps Program.

Upcoming Events

FiltXPO | October 10 - 14 | Chicago, IL NatureWorks' Koen Bastiaens will present "Optimizing Ingeo Biopolymers to Improve Filter Performance - A Spectrum of Approaches and Opportunities" at this event.

Extrusion 2023 | October 10 - 12 | Indianapolis, IN NatureWorks' Andrea Auchter will present, "Developments in thermoforming of Ingeo PLA" at this event.

Greener Manufacturing Show | October 11 - 12 | Atlanta, GA NatureWorks' Robert Green with moderate the "Transforming Plastics" session and lead the panel discussion, "Driving Change in the North American Plastics Sector."

Stay up-to-date with where NatureWorks will be on our News & Events page.