New Biorenewable Plant Containers to Be Displayed at International Plastics Show



David Grewell, Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, (515) 294-2036,
James Schrader, Horticulture, (515) 230-3408,
Jeni Maiers, Center for Crops Utilization Research, (515) 294-6197,

Biobased Plant Containers
Plant containers are produced from natural proteins, carbohydrates, oils and low-cost natural fibers. Download larger photo

AMES, Iowa — The Iowa State University Biopolymers and Biocomposites Research Team (BBRT) has developed biorenewable and biodegradable plant containers for the specialty crop industry as an alternative to petroleum-based pots.

Nearly all specialty crops for residential gardening and landscaping are currently grown in petroleum-based containers, most of which end up in a landfill after one use. The new biobased plant containers are produced from natural proteins, carbohydrates, oils and low-cost natural fibers.

“The biobased plant containers are a sustainable replacement for petroleum-based pots and degrade harmlessly when planted in a garden,” said David Grewell, chair of the BBRT and associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering. "In addition, the protein-based containers have the added feature that they fertilize the soil as they degrade.”

Early results with plant containers made from corn and soy proteins show that containers degrade slowly, providing fertilizer for growing plants. Compared to plants grown in petroleum-plastic pots, plants grown in protein-based containers were greener and healthier one month after transplanting into the garden when containers were broken down and installed beneath the plant roots.

“Our early trials with soy-based pots indicate that the containers can biodegrade more than 50 percent when buried in the soil for just five weeks,” said James Schrader, member of the BBRT and assistant scientist in horticulture.

Grewell noted that these plant containers are the perfect application for the protein-based plastics developed at Iowa State. “They have the ideal degradation rate, strength and water retention,” he said. “Everyone that sees these pots asks the same question, ‘where can I buy one?’”

A $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will fund continuing research on container design and resin formulation to optimize fertility benefits and evaluate additional types of bioplastic materials.

Plant Containers in Greenhouse
James Schrader, left, and Gowrishanker Srinivasan, postdoctoral research associate in David Grewell's research group, look at the condition of the plant containers in the horticulture greenhouse. Download larger photo

The BBRT will have an exhibit at the NPE2012 International Plastics Showcase April 1-5 in Orlando. The team will be displaying plant containers made from corn and soy proteins, as well as other samples of biobased plastics, composites and coatings.

“This will be a great opportunity for industry and users, including gardeners, to see these pots first hand. The hope is to develop industrial collaborations that will lead to long term acceptance of these novel products,” said Grewell.

The BBRT promotes research and development of biorenewable polymers and composites from agricultural crops, encourages bioplastics in industry, and works toward new formulations and processing techniques. The team of researchers includes faculty members in the agricultural and biosystems engineering, architecture and design, chemical engineering, chemistry, materials science, and natural resource ecology and management departments. The research team operates under the Center for Crops Utilization Research umbrella at Iowa State.


Iowa State’s Biopolymers and Biocomposites Research Team will be in booth number 62044 in the Sustainability Pavilion.