Florists’ guide to commonly used materials
To become more sustainable, floristry must move towards a circular economy.
A circular economy follows three principles:
These principles are all driven by design.
Since florists are designers, they can play a powerful role in supporting circular economies by designing out waste.
To do this, we need to consider our materials and products, their life cycles from manufacturing through to disposal, and how they fit into accessible resource recovery and waste handling streams.
In the following list, we look at some of the most common manufactured products used by florists through a circular lens.
Composition: Flowers and other organic/plant material (foliage, stems, seed and pods) are 100% organic matter.
Resource recovery: Compost
Pros: Composting flowers allows flowers to complete their natural cycle and return to the earth. This process follows a biological circular cycle. Composting reduces emissions and reclaims valuable nutrients to enrich soil.
Cons: Some areas may not have access to composting systems.
More sustainable choices: flowers grown without the use of synthetic pesticides.
Notes: Remove everything that can’t be composted before composting to prevent contamination (wires, ties, packaging etc).
Ensure your material does not contain synthetic contaminants that may damage the compost system and create problems when the compost is used in the natural environment. This is especially true for plastics and other environmentally problematic compounds.
For information on pesticides in compost, see the resource: Pesticides and Flowers.
Treating compost as a valuable resource is a critical feature of a circular economy.
Composition: Flowers, other organic/plant material (foliage, stems, seed and pods) treated with non-compostable preservatives, or covered with paint, flocking, glitter or some other synthetic material.
Resource recovery: None. They must be disposed of in landfill.
Pros: They can be used to create arrangements that need to last for a long time or be reused.
Cons: Can be expensive. Unless the preserving process is known, the materials should be sent to landfill. Some preserving process use plastic materials/chemicals that should not be added to composting systems as they cause chemical contamination of the compost.
More sustainable choices: Fresh flowers. Naturally dried flowers. Flowers that have been preserved using glycerine only. Flowers dyed with non-toxic vegetable dyes.
However, an important concept to consider is the role of the florist in connecting people with nature. Using dyes can confuse customers who may not know they are ‘natural’. Part of being a more sustainable florist is being transparent with customers about what is natural, and what is not.
Composition: Adhesives fall into two categories: synthetic and natural. Many synthetic adhesives are plastic, especially ones that bind strongly, like the glue used in glue guns, superglue and products like adhesive ‘clay’ used for the base of kenzans.
Biodegradable glues include PVA and many of those sold as ‘non-toxic and child-friendly’.
Many florists use glue instead of wire for designs like corsages and head-pieces. The likelihood of these items being disassembled and separated for recycling is very low, and the most likely end point is disposal.
It is better to avoid the use of plastic-based glue with flowers, especially if there is a chance the flowers will be composted — or the glue-covered material should be separated and sent to waste.
Resource recovery: should be sent to landfill/disposal if synthetic.
PROS – Glue can make the process of creating some designs quicker and easier.
CONS – is often petrochemical based /plastic. Added to flowers, turns a compostable item into one that must be sent to landfill. If sent to compost, plastic glue will contaminate the compost resource.
Final glued designs are (most likely) destined for landfill as they become a mixed material product that is difficult to separate (eg – a plastic headband with flowers glued on).
More sustainable choices: natural and biodegradable glues
Composition: Plant fibres e.g. willow, seagrass, and cane.
Resource recovery: Compost, although check that the construction is not chemically treated and does not contain wire or plastics.
Pros: Reuseable, compostable at end-of life, and made from renewable materials. A decorative finish that can be used to camouflage upcycled water vessels, e.g. food containers.
Cons: Some constructions feature plastics, wire, paint, varnish and glue. These materials must be separated before composting.
More sustainable choices: Choose untreated basketry made of natural materials. Avoid products with lacquer, paint or plastic. Make sure any wire is removed before composting.
There are two materials marketed as cellophane: “original cellophane” and “plastic cellophane”. They can be difficult to distinguish. Check the label carefully to determine what type of cellophane you are dealing with.
“Original cellophane” – the material we used as young children to make coloured windows in craft projects – is made from plant material such as wood, cotton, hemp, and corn.
“Plastic cellophane” is a clear wrap made from the plastic polypropylene (sometimes labelled BOPP), which is created from fossil fuels.
Resource recovery: “Original cellophane” can be composted, but not recycled.
“Plastic cellophane” is not biodegradable or compostable, but it can be recycled. However, polypropylene plastic recycling programs can be difficult to access, they can be expensive and can often result in a low grade product. Worldwide, only 1% is recycled each year – the rest ends up in landfill.
Pros: Functions as a waterproof product and can serve as a protective packaging.
Cons: True cellophane, while being biodegradable/compostable and made of natural, renewable materials, is a single use item.
Plastic cellophane, or polypropylene, is not a sustainable material.
More sustainable choices:
See ‘Paper’ options below.
Composition: Some wrapping options are a mix of plastic and paper mixed into the one material. These can be hard to identify. Some might be paper backed with a waterproof plastic.
Resource recovery: Mixed materials like this are usually not recyclable and must go to general waste/landfill.
Pros: Offers waterproofing advantages, unusual textures etc.
Cons: Must be disposed in landfill. Can be confusing for the end user if they can’t identify the materials and therefore the correct disposal channel. This can contaminate recycling processes.
More sustainable choices: See “paper” options below.
Composition: The basis of all pottery and ceramics is clay. Clay occurs naturally in the environment – it’s basically soil with a particular mix of minerals called ‘clay minerals’. Different types of clay and mineral combinations give rise to different products. Ceramics and stoneware are fired at a much higher temperature than earthenware. Glazes added to the outside of earthenware makes it waterproof.
Resource recovery: Ceramics and pottery can be reused, but cannot be recycled and do not biodegrade. However, if added to landfill, they are inert, non-toxic and do not produce greenhouse gases.
Pros: Reusable, made from natural materials, and non-toxic if they escape into the environment.
Cons: Some glazes contain toxic chemicals and pose a health risk to workers. Heavy to transport. Can be difficult to repair. Broken earthenware can be a safety hazard.
More sustainable choices: Reusing second-hand vessels already in circulation. Cups and mugs can be used to hold flowers
Including regular and ‘biofoam’ green foam, styrofoam for dried arrangements and polystyrene (often used for wreaths).
Composition: Wet green floral foam (including ‘biofoam’) is made from a type of plastic resin called ‘phenol formaldehyde’.
Dry foams can be made of polyurethane plastic or Styrofoam/polystyrene.
Resource recovery: Green flora foam is not recyclable. Polyurethane and polystyrene are difficult to recycle and rarely are. General waste disposal only.
Pros: Makes arranging flowers easy.
Cons: Single use plastics, produces plastic waste that forms microplastics and contaminates the natural environment very easily. Has no place in sustainable floral design.
More sustainable choices: Please see:
Composition: Glass is made from molten sand. Compounds are added to produce different types of glass. For example, adding sodium carbonate and lime creates the durable “soda-lime glass”, commonly used for bottles.
Resource recovery: Intact glass is reusable.
Glass bottles and jars are endlessly recyclable and accepted by most municipal recycling systems.
Other types of glass need different types of recycling. For example, broken vases and glasses are recyclable, but because they melt at a different temperature, usually cannot go in municipal recycling systems. Wrap them in paper and add to landfill bound waste, unless you have access to a recycler that accepts this type of glass.
Some glass, like Pyrex products, cannot be recycled
Pros: Usually recyclable, non-toxic, easy to source.
Cons: A safety hazard when broken. Not all glass accepted by domestic recycling systems.
More sustainable choices: Reusing glass jars/vessels already in circulation is a great way to save resources and energy – and the jars are more likely to be recycled at the end of their life. You can often source glass products in charity shops.
Further Reading: What glass can you recycle? – Friends of Glass
Composition: The majority of plastics are made from refined oil, a non-renewable fossil fuel. There are hundreds of different types of plastics, depending on their chemical composition. The seven groups we most often encounter can be identified by the recycling symbols on the product:
Resource recovery: While recycling is often possible, only 9% of all plastic ever produced has actually been recycled.
Check with your local municipality to find out which plastics they collect for recycling. Just because a plastic product carries a recycling symbol doesn’t mean the capacity to recycle it exists in your area.
Remember, if systems aren’t in place to collect plastics, they are most likely to end up in landfill or be incinerated – or the natural environment through litter and incorrect disposal.
Certain polymers should be avoided at all costs as global regulation limits or forbids their use.
Pros: Plastic is so embedded in our daily lives that it is hard to imagine how we would function without it. Plastic is an incredibly durable, lightweight material that serves a wide range of purposes.
Cons: The world’s love affair with plastic has led to massive environmental issues. Plastic inevitably makes its way into the natural environment, and into animals – including humans.
More sustainable choices: Eliminating single-use plastics is a critical step in addressing the world’s plastic problem. Following the zero waste pyramid around the use of other plastics.
Alternatives will depend on your needs. For florists, better choices may include reusable vessels made out of glass or ceramics, sturdy paper, canvas bags, aluminium foil, beeswax wraps, or chicken wire. For ‘bioplastic’ options, please see the next section.
If you have no choice but to use plastics for a particular purpose, then look for materials that include recycled content. These materials are available in most commercial markets and are typically supported by recycling infrastructure.
Ellen Macarthur New Plastics EconomyThe New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics (ellenmacarthurfoundation.org)
Plastic Pollution Coalition Home | Plastic Pollution Coalition
Plastic Oceans HOME | Plastic Oceans
United Nations Environment Programme: Beat Plastic Pollution Visual Feature | Beat Plastic Pollution (unep.org)
Composition: ‘Bioplastics’ are plastics that are either made from plants (also called ‘bio-based plastics’), are biodegradable, or both. Bioplastics are fast gaining popularity as renewable alternatives to fossil-fuel based plastics. However, there are many problems associated with this new technology, mostly due to a lack of systems to process the material at the end of its life.
Resource recovery: Always check the label to see how to dispose of the product. Given they are often marketed as ‘biodegradable’, you might assume bioplastics can be easily composted, but this is not usually the case.
Certified compostable bioplastics usually fall into two categories: home compostable and industrial compostable. While the former are supposed to break down in a home compost system, one study found 60% of these products did not. Proceed with caution.
Bioplastics labeled ‘industrial compostable’ (or often just ‘compostable’) need very specific conditions to break down — generally, high heat over a set period of time in industrial composting systems.
Although industrial composting programs are growing in the developed world, most are designed for food and garden waste. Some systems allow compost-approved food containers and some bioplastics, while others are much stricter. Each municipality can differ – check with yours.
Bioplastics generally can’t be recycled – again, check the label. If you can’t compost them, dispose of them in the general rubbish. If industrial compostable bioplastics end up in the natural environment or landfill, they can take a very long time to break down. They can pollute the environment in the same way as regular plastics.
Pros: Bioplastics made from plants are renewable and reduce consumption of fossil fuels.
Cons: Currently, very little infrastructure is in place to capture bioplastics and complete the circular cycle. At this stage, often the only place for them is landfill, and this results in the production of methane as the material degrades. Also, despite being made from natural materials, some bioplastics contain harmful chemicals, particularly some coated compostable packaging.
While there are some innovative products and credible manufacturers, the bioplastics market is rife with greenwashing. It can be hard to trust product claims.
More sustainable choices: Always look for certifications when using bioplastics – and make sure you have access to the right disposal channel. Just using ‘compostable’ plastics is not enough. Compostable plastics must be composted in practice in the right composting system to ensure they do not damage the environment.
Composition: Rubber is a natural material from rubber trees.
Nearly all rubber bands are natural. However, some contain synthetic materials to make them more durable or colourful. To be safe, choose plain brown rubber bands.
Resource recovery: Natural rubber bands are biodegradable and can be composted, although they might take a while to fully degrade. They do not pose a problem in composting systems. They cannot be recycled.
Coloured bands and those with synthetic additives should go in your general waste.
Pros: All natural product, can be reused, can safely return to a composting system.
Cons: Can pose a risk for wildlife if in the natural environment and they are mistaken for food or cause entanglement. Bands with synthetic additives can be difficult to identify.
More sustainable choices: Re-use wherever possible. Plain brown bands are more easily managed at end of life than bands covered in nylon (as often used in flower bunching machines). These bands must be sent to general waste.
Parafilm: waxed polyolefin (plastic)
Floratape: paper with anon-biodegradable wax coating
Florist ‘pot tape’/ ‘gaffa’ tape: plastic adhesive on plastic-backed fabric tape
Sticky tape: usually polypropylene plastic, though some biodegradable tapes are available
Masking tape: usually contains plastic adhesive
All the above tapes have a plastic component.
Resource recovery: Because tapes are often a mix of materials (e.g. backing material and adhesive), recycling is pretty much impossible. Also, tape is usually used in combination with other materials (think wired corsages), so in some cases, whatever they are attached to must also go to landfill.
The exceptions are very small amounts on paper sent for recycling. Most recycling facilities are capable of handling sticky tape contaminants in the recycling process, though it is better to remove them.
Pros: Tapes are often essential for many floristry jobs such as wiring (parafilm and flora tape) and ensuring the stability of arrangements (pot tape). Fortunately they are only used in small quantities compared to other plastics.
Cons: In the case of wiring work, often the tape is inseparable from the final item (corsage) and so must be sent to landfill.
More sustainable choices: Natural fibre string or waxed hemp twine can often be used in place of tapes to secure items and tie off flowers. Any natural fibre tie suitable for composting increases the likelihood that the flowers will end up in a composting/green waste system at the end of their life.
Composition: Synthetic ribbons and ties can be made out of many different materials, including polyester, nylon, and polypropylene.
Resource recovery: Ribbons lend themselves well to reuse. However, they will eventually lose their structure.
While ribbons can be made out of recyclable material, they generally cannot be recycled because they can jam recycling machines.
Cons: Effectively unrecyclable, ultimately destined for landfill.
More sustainable choices: Natural fibre ribbon like upcycled cotton/linen/hemp fabric cut into strips, jute or sisal string or paper raffia.
Composition: It depends on the product, but materials include jute, sisal, paper, raffia, hessian, cotton, hemp, linen.
Resource recovery: Reuse. Eventually compost.
Pros: Made of natural, renewable materials. Compostable provided the material is not mixed with synthetic fibres.
Cons: Currently, the global cotton industry is unsustainable for multiple reasons.
More sustainable choices: Jute, sisal and hemp strings are the most sustainable choices for tying bunches/gift wrapping.
Using fabric already in production — such as old cotton and linen sheets, damaged clothing or fabric offcuts — to create unique ties is a great way to conserve resources and minimise waste.
Composition: Most tin (cans, pots) is made from steel or aluminium, with a coating of tin. Some tins available for florist use are also painted.
Resource recovery: Tin is highly recyclable in domestic waste systems.
Pros: Cost effective water-holding vessel for gifts in place of glass.
Cons: Not renewable, may eventually rust if used for water for long periods.
More sustainable choices: Reusing vessels already in circulation, and using vessels made from recycled tin. Recycling metals is far more energy efficient than using virgin ore to create more metal.
Composition: Most wire products are made from steel.
Fine floristry wire is made from steel that has either been powder coated with paint or paper.
Chicken wire is often coated with either zinc or sometimes plastic to stop it rusting.
Sometimes copper or aluminium wire is used by florists for decorative purposes.
Resource recovery: Wire is reusable, and highly recyclable. It is not usually collected in domestic waste recovery, so check with your municipality. Scrap metal dealers may take wire. In the natural environment, steel will eventually rust and turn into a non-toxic natural addition to the soil.
Pros: Wires are useful products to support decorative pieces such as wearables.
Chicken wire/bird wire in water offers a good substitute for floral foam as a base for arranging.
Cons: Must be separated from flowers before disposal. Large quantities of wire might need special disposal services to reach recyclers.
More sustainable choices: Re-using chicken wire wherever possible is a good way to ensure the materials stay at their highest value for as long as possible. Separating wire from other waste to ensure it is recycled is important for conserving resources.
Composition: Unless marked otherwise, treat as unknown plastic type.
Resource recovery: General waste if unknown plastic type.
Pros: Useful for keeping flowers hydrated, good for replacing floral foam in event work.
Cons: Short-lived plastic items. Most are not recyclable.
More sustainable choices: Many vials are already in circulation. Collecting these and reusing extends the products’ lifespan and keeps them at their highest value for as long as possible.