One of my clients is the Environment Sector of a local government authority here in Milan. Needless to say they're very interesting to work with, and I occasionally come home with the "freebies" they're distributing to promote the work they're doing to protect the environment in the area.
Last autumn, one of these was a "flower in a can". Or rather, seeds to grow in a can of growing medium. As it wasn't planting time, I didn't really think any more about it. But when I pulled it out of my seed box a couple of days ago, I started to get curious. Nice idea to try and get people to grow flowers, but was it really an environmentally friendly give-away?
My first doubt was the packaging. It comes in an aluminium can with a plastic top (plastic?). There's a ring pull both ends of the can - the top comes right off, while at the bottom there's just a drainage hole. You add water at the top and then use the plastic top as a drip tray.
There is a "recyclable" symbol on the can, and I presume that refers also to the plastic. However, I would have preferred packaging which was biodegradable. I'm not sure what the growing medium is - it looks like wood chippings, but one website I found seemed to describe it as vermiculite, sand and peat. I say "seemed to" because unfortunately (for me, that is) the site was in Dutch - not my best language. It doesn't seem to be anything noxious, but the use of peat is worrying, even if there has recently been equal criticism of the use of certain commercial alternatives - see this post by Patrick of Bifurcated Carrots.
And what about transport miles? How much energy is consumed and pollution created in transporting it? When I opened it, I rooted around and found exactly two sunflower seeds. The packaging, with dry contents, is not heavy but it is relatively bulky.
There, however, the local authority gained brownie points. It's produced in the Milan area, so the transport impact would be minimal and they're also supporting the local economy - another of their responsibilities.
The transport effect would not, however, be as unimportant for other customers. This range of products (you can get various flower and vegetable seeds other than my sunflowers) is distributed not only all over Europe, but also as far as Japan and China.
How much does it cost to send two sunflower seeds that far, I wondered? I couldn't find out. The only distributor whose website gave prices was the UK distributor Regent House. Their website announced that the product was on special bargain offer because they're discontinuing the line, so I clicked eagerly to check it out. £1 each but only available in packs of 12, and some lines in the range only available in packs of 36. Obviously not aimed at individuals. If you just want one, you can get it over the net on EBay or at Amazon for anything from £3-£5, plus postage. In other words, for your two sunflower seeds you're going to end up paying at least £5-£7. (For those of you not in the UK, that's roughly €7 or $3 - though the current weakness of the dollar masks how expensive that really is). They're the same seeds as are often sold for bird food - I checked out the price on the RSPB site and it's just over £1 per kilo of seeds (about €1,20 or 50 US cents for 2.2 pounds of seed ). And as for the transport miles if you bought over EBay ...
All in all not a product I would recommend. I hope that this year the Environment Sector will go back to their idea of a couple of years back. That year, they just gave out packets of seeds.
But I've got mine now, so we'll see what happens. It's supposed to germinate in about a fortnight. I'll keep you posted.