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Recycled gear makes gardening even greener

Manufacturers are hitting pay dirt with recycled products designed for the garden.

Discarded plastic is being made into work gloves, rainbarrels and buckets. Worn-out tires are being converted into weed-smothering mulch and durable walkways.

Beverly Schor is founder of West County Gardener, a San Francisco-based company that creates garden and work gloves from recycled plastic bottles.

'We do a lot of testing on fibers and found these gloves are just as durable, just as soft, as any made from natural materials,' Schor said. 'We think their wearability is better than leather. Among other things, you can simply throw them into a washer and dryer.'

Turning recycled plastic into fiber began in the 1980s during a time of gasoline shortages, she said. As prices soared for petrochemical-based plastic, mills discovered practical ways to convert the less expensive recycled substance into carpeting.

'But carpets are coarse,' said Schor, a gardener and former sports apparel designer. 'I started looking around for another raw material and found a Korean company that could make something finer (from plastic bottles) for textiles.'

The sturdy but soft, padded gloves retail at around $19.95 a pair. Every recycled glove produced means one fewer 8-ounce plastic bottle tossed into a landfill, Schor said.

'In 2010, we will be retooling and taking that to two bottles. Everything but the palm (on the gloves) will be 100 percent recycled, and we're even working on that.'

Americans generated 254 million tons of trash, and recycled and composted about 85 tons of that in 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said. That works out to a recycling rate of 33.4 percent. Those figures represent municipal solid waste - things commonly used and then thrown away, such as food scraps, grass clippings, old tires, furniture and appliances. It does not include industrial, hazardous or construction waste.

Making greater use of organic materials reduces the amount of solid waste in landfills.

A company called EcoForms, for example, has introduced a line of durable but decomposable plant containers made from grain husks and other natural bindings.

The Liquid Fence Co. sells biodegradable manure-fiber-based 'CowPots' that can be placed directly in the ground, eliminating the transplant shock that often results when starting seeds in plastic pots.

And Bonnie Plants, a Union Springs, Ala., grower and wholesaler that supplies flowers and vegetable plants to nearly every major retailer in the country, has been using peat containers rather than plastic for much of its greenhouse stock since the 1960s.

'We're not going completely organic but we are growing greener,' said Dennis Thomas, Bonnie's general manager. 'Organic people will buy our peat container because they know it won't last (in landfills) a million years.

'Punching holes in the bottom frees the roots to grow so you can throw it into the ground along with the plant. It becomes part of the soil in a matter of weeks. Compare that to plastic, which doesn't degrade.'

Scores of companies are shredding bald vehicle tires into crumb rubber, which has garden applications including mulch, tree rings, soaker hoses and steppingstones.

'Sales are really up for the mulch,' said Madeline Wenz of Garden Oaks Specialties in Bound Brook, N.J., which retails the recycled product by the bag or in bulk. 'It's cleaner (than wood mulch), comes in several colors and lasts longer.'

Gardener's Supply Co., in Burlington, Vt., sells many products made from recycled content. The company recently surveyed customers about what they were looking for from garden suppliers.

'We had 22,000 responding, with 70 percent saying they cared about things involving the environment, particularly energy conservation, preserving habitat and improving air quality,' said spokeswoman Maree Gaetani. 'We're still going through all of it, but it's obvious people are reaching out for green kinds of products. We're seeing it in dollars and cents.'