Introducing innovation: biodegradable Vipot (Part II)

Various manufacturers have introduced biodegradable pots, that should be viewed in terms of how they conform to important characteristics listed See Part I pdf

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The introduction of innovative products and systems is a key indicator in determining how well a country or company is able to navigate the barriers of established practice, bureauracy and vested interests, to economic success.

The example of the biodegradable Vipot in Europe demonstrates the difficulty in convincing growers that it is worthwhile to enter the argument of sustainable agriculture and biological production, saying no to plastics. See:

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One of the difficulties arises from the gradual evolution in consumer behaviour.  Following introduction, the consumer tends to be excited and happy to pay more for a biodegradable pot. Then comes disillusionment born from confusion and contradiction in the claims made for many competing products. Consumers then start to understand the complexities of the ‘bio’ and ‘eco’ labelling and look for the pros and cons involved. With further education, the consumer becomes enlightened, able to place the advantages of an innovative product properly in context. Only then can the distributor, grower and consumer feel happy and confidant about the new product.


At the 2013 IPM exhibition at Essen, the Eutopia brand was launched. This brand consists of a range of aromatic and flowering plants grown in Vipots by a consortium of growers and other professionals. Eutopia growers use Vipots and subscribe to precise production protocols. The original members of the consortium are well-established growers and exporters located in the Albenga region of Italy. This very attractive trademark brings to bear from its Greek origin the idea of a good place to be, the contribution that the consortium and its brand intend to make in respect of nature and the environment.

aromatic palnts grow well in VipotsAnother important marketing feature is the determination of the Corsortium to broaden its range of aromatic herbs and vegetable plants linked to biological production and particular culinary uses.  Wild flowers constitutes a new category as well as bonsai olive pants, citrus, Euphorbia, Gebera and orchids. All these plants are offered in Vipots under the EUTOPIA trademark. These developments were on display at the recently held exhibition in Milan at Cascina Cuccagna (part of Designs of Mother Nature, Fuori Salone di Milano, April 2013).

Eutopia - rice-husk2In support of the new brand, the consortium now needs to take greater care of the overall quality, uniformity and presentation of the plants themselves. Otherwise the brand is unlikely to meet its notable market potential.

 Q.2 What can we learn from how Vipots are being introduced in Europe?

Vipots, made from waste rice husks, are 100% biodegradable. They contain no synthetic additives and therefore leave no chemical residues in the soil or compost.  Made in China, these pots were first introduced in Europe by Fargro at the 2003 edition of the Four Oaks Exhibition creating great interest and winning a prize for innovation.

It would however seem a contradiction in terms of marketing and promotion for the same distributor to sell Vipots alongside a wide range of plastic pots, except that they can easily reach their existing clientela.  It remains an uphill task to convince important propagators and growers about the merits and extra cost Vipots and much depends upon consumer education and preference to create market pull.

I next came across Vipots at the 2007 edition of the Flormart exhibition, Padova, Italy, on the stand of Total Packaging Srl that has the distribution rights for Europe (excluding UK). This Company is demonstrating a positive attitude for the introduction of innovative products, committing itself to success. See:

Rice grains in Vipot containersOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA




Vipot containers (Decor range bowls) were on display at the 2012 edition of Terra Madre / Salone del Gusto, Torino 2012 on the Biodiversity in Asia stand. The combination of rice grains (over 100 varieties) and containers made from rice husks was perfect and sets the scene for future international collaboration. See:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAQ.3 What are the needs of the grower customers, diversified by sector and types of plants?

TP Packaging shows strong determination to understand the precise needs of propagators and growers in Italy and in the rest of Europe. The Company has introduced Vipots designed for rooting young plants. Rooted young plants can be directly transplanted into the final Vipot (or into the ground) and the rooting-pot biodegrades in the substrate or soil. In a larger pot size they have introduced two new Vipots specifically designed for growing orchid and rose plants. This is the result of a close collaborationwith the manufacturer.

An important need for growers is to know the time it takes for Vipots to biodegrade; propagators seek around 12 months, a pot plant grower might ask for 18-24 months, while a nursery-stock grower wants a duration of 3-5 years for plants standing outside in all weathers. It is possible to tailor the duration by varying the consistency of the biopolymer, at source. For the florist and garden centre retail, a different more elegant range is available where the biopolymer has been further ‘cooked’ to provide a tougher, shiny surface and longer life.  Below image: note the rooting pot inside the final pot.

transplant of rooting potIt should be said that for longer-life Vipots it is necessary to crack and break up the pots to ensure the most rapid bidegradation, providing a larger surface area for the soil microorganisms to do their work. In the USA, environmental organizations are attempting to specify the maximum period for degradation if to call a product biodegradable. No doubt there are some vested commercial interests in this regard, although it is increasingly necessary to counter ‘green washing’ – where companies promote products as being ecologically and environmentally sound/sustainable without any real scientific basis. As the Vipot material degrades, it releases mineral nutrients, organic fibre (and no chemical residues) to the benefit of soil fertility.

Q.4 How is it possible to link biological production, bioenergy and biodiversity?

The controlling company FuturePower Srl, distributes Biogas technology, enabling the company to commit growers to a virtuous C2C (cradle to cradle) recycling concept.  From waste rice husks to Vipots, from plants grown biologically in Vipots to surplus plants and waste, from biogas digestors to the production of electricty, hot water and plant compost.  See: biodiversity & energy (pdf English) and biodiversità ed energia (pdf italiano) and section on biogas.

Cycle of Life (for blog)

Q.5 Meeting the need for applied research?

Greenhouse and laboratory research is another aspect not overlooked by the Company. Research Institutes need new research projects for their students and professors and Vipot is happy to engage in comparative research. Positive results in Italy speak for themselves and will help growers appreciate the characteristics of the pots and accept a slightly higher unit cost (due not to the material itself but to the current limitation in speed of production).

Research undertaken by FloSo at the University of Padova (Dipartimento di Agronomia Ambientale e Produzioni Vegetali) on Pelargonium, Cyclamen and Poinsettia, in association with commercial nurseries. For example in the Cyclamen tested, the fresh weight of the vegetation and the root system increased in plants grown in Vipots against the controls.

See also the comparative research undertaken by the University of Basilicata on two biodegradable pots on the cultivation of Poinsettia See: Poinsettia in Vipot pdf (ItalianoPoinsettia in Vipot pdf (English)

Vipots are porous to gaseous exchange which has a positive effect on the growth of roots and reducing root spiralling. The postive effect extends to the growth of populations of microorganisms, antagonist to potentially pathenogenic organisms. The same might be said of clay pots but these have the disadvantage of weight and coldness in the winter. Further research is being undertaken at Agrinnova, University of Torino.


The above image is of comparative root growth at trials at Scuola di Minoprio, near Como. Results were said to be positive in the annual plants tested. (Vipot on the left of the image)

Rice accumulates the mineral element Silicon (Si) and rice husks contain high levels of this mineral. Recent research has demonstrated the positive effects of bioactive silicon (silicic acid) on reducing biotic and abiotic stress. It stands to reason that bioative silicon will be released to the soil and substrate during the biodegradation of Vipots.  Also during the production cycle in Vipots, micro-organisms in the substrate and the roots themselves might be active in causing bioactive silicon to be released from the side walls. See: section on bioactive silicon

Q.6 Why do some doors open while others stay doggedly closed, for no discernable reason?

Not least is the barrier to innovation represented by corporatism. The organization of horticultural professionals into corporate groups and associations should be based on common interests. Companies naturally seek to collaborate with such organizations, but growers and other operators can be easily conditioned by pressure from the agrochemical and plastics industry or by opinions and vested interests of leading figures, if left uncontested for long.

A reportfrom the US Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) 2012 says that negative perceptions of environmentally friendly products is keeping an increasing number of consumers out of the market even when more people know about these goods and where to find them. The data shows that the trade is past the point of being able to charge more for green products! It has to make the value and benefits clear to consumers – saving the planet is not reason enough to charge more. In addition, consumers often perceive that environmentally friendly products do not work as well as regular products. It is necessary to demonstrate the value of environmentally friendly products by driving the costs down, improving quality, and communicating the benefits, if the growth of the green marketplace is to continue. LOHAS Consumer Trends Database: (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability).  GrowerTalks/Green Profit Ball Publishing

Despite the above, consumer research in the USA has shown that of all the different types of biodegradable pots tested, Vipot (US equivalent) had the highest rating with clients to accept the extra cost at retail.  This cannot be immediately extended to Italian and European consumers without further research, nevertheless it remains a useful indicator for retailers to inform their grower suppliers. Premium price pdf (EnglishPremium price pdf (Italiano)

The combination of marketing and promotional efforts of an entrepreneurial company together with research and communication, demonstrates the way forward for introducing truly innovative products and to win over conventional thought and resistance.

Q7. What other biodegradable pots are available?

Biopots_image_Purdue uniThere are many different Biopots for growers to choose from. Characteristics vary consideranbly in terms of the renewable resources utilized, additives, relative ability and speed to biodegrade and their compostability. In some cases the pots need to be crushed into smaller pieces to aid biodegradation. At all events the following Biopots come from large well-established manufacturers able to introduce this innovation to existing clients. See Part I pdf

Comparative trials have been made between some of these Biopots. Institutional trials include: The State Teaching & Research Institute for Horitculture (LVG) Heidelberg, Germany LVG Heidelberg, the IQDHO, Quebec IQDHO, Quebec, the University of Tennessee and for references see the Ellison Chair in International Floriculture and Research on Physical properties of biocontainers, Horttech June 2010 20(3) 549-555.

Different renewable source materials and mixtures have been used to provide biopolymers. Apart from rice husks in the case of VIPOT, potato starch is used in the NATURE POT from JD TransBIO and in Biopots from Kreuwel Plastics Napac’s BioPot is produced 70% from Miscanthus or rice fibre mixed with a natural binder Napac BioPot. ECOVAS from Groencreatie ECOVAS Groencreatie originates totally from unspecified vegetable oil. Biopots using Mater-Bi from Novamont are made from blends of maize starch and other vegetable oils. D-GRADE Bio products are 100% biodegradable and compostable produced based on vegetable materials and are completely free from genetically modified materials D-Grade Bio products. Ball Horticultural Company’s SoilWrap is made from the biopolymer Mirel from Metalbolix See also: SOILWRAP. Jiffy’s CarbonLite biopots are made 90% from biodegradable renewable vegetable matter and binders plus a small quantity of recycled polypropylene. While polypropylene does not biodegrade this is compensated by low a carbon footprint in manufacture and the gain made from recycling plastics.

Q8. How can we judge the Carbon Footprint of Biopots?

Which pots have the lowest carbon footprint? In this difficult analysis various factors need considering: Gains made by substituting fossil fuel with biomass. Gains made by using organic waste thereby reducing costs and pollution involved in waste disposal. Gains from low energy input and use of renewable energy in the manufacturing process. Gains made from using biopolmers free from chemical residues.  What pots can be simply thrown into anaerobic digesters, together with unsold or dead plants, generating biogas? Others are compostable only at higher temperatures in industrial composting. See Report on the Appeal of Biodegradable Packaging pdf sponsored by the American Floral Endowment.

Q9. Are biopots all ‘Green’?

The bioamass used in the manufacture of Biopots also needs to be grown biologically. An examination was made of 12 polymers – 7 derived from petroleum, 4 from plant sources and one derived from both – for their environmental impact both in terms of the production and preproduction of the polymers themselves and their life cycle or biodegradability.

As could be expected, biopolymers won out in terms of biodegradability, low toxicity and the use of renewable sources of energy. Suprisingly, however, biopolymers were amongst the greatest polluters on the path to production, probably due to plant chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides etc.) used in the production of the original biomass and the chemical processing needed to convert the biomass to plastic polymers.

Michaelangelo D. Tabone, James J. Cregg, Eric J. Beckman, and Amy E. Landis, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2010, 44 (21), pp 8264–8269 DOI: 10.102/es101640n University of Pittsburgh, USA. LCA

Edward Bent ©2012 | HORTCOM