USDA Awards Iowa State Grant to Develop Biorenewable Plant Containers

Plant Containers
A closeup of the soy protein-based plant container.

Iowa State University has been awarded a grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop biorenewable and biodegradable containers for the specialty crop industry.

The $1.9 million grant will be used to develop bioplastic containers as an alternative to petroleum-based pots. Bill Graves, professor of horticulture, will lead the research team that includes David Grewell, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering; Michael Kessler, associate professor of materials science and engineering; James Schrader, assistant scientist in horticulture; and scientists at the University of Illinois; University of Nevada-Reno; and Ohio State University.

“Nearly all specialty crops, including bedding plants, tomatoes and other vegetables, and containerized shrubs and trees that are purchased for residential gardening and landscaping, are grown and marketed in petroleum-based, conventional plastic containers. Few of those are recycled or reused,” said Graves. “Our vision is to provide sustainable alternatives that can meet the needs horticultural producers, and that will degrade harmlessly when installed with the plant in a garden.”

An estimated $706 million could be saved annually by the specialty crop industry by converting from petroleum-based containers to bioplastic containers, Graves said. Other benefits include shifting resource revenue from foreign oil to domestic biorenewables and eliminating adverse environmental effects of petroleum-based plastics.

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture last week awarded 29 grants across 19 states to develop and share science-based tools to address the needs of America’s specialty crop industry grants through its Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

Working in the Pilot Plant and Greenhouse
Left: Sean Carolan, former student in David Grewell's research group, is using the 150-ton hydraulic press to make plant containers. Students Jake Behrens, Derek Huser, and Nathan Wagoner also worked on making the containers. Right: James Schrader, left, and Gowrishanker Srinivasan, postdoctoral research associate in Grewell's research group, look at the condition of the plant containers in the horticulture greenhouse.