How green is your houseplant collection?

written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

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From lush and temperamental fiddle leaf figs to laid-back snake plants, houseplants have become ubiquitous in the homes of many millennials and Gen Zs, especially as their care has become into a calming, serotonin-boosting hobby early in the pandemic.

New plant parents (including this writer) sparked a surge in Google searches for popular flora like pothos and prayer plants in the early 2020s, while seasoned gardeners offered tips for newbies on networking platforms social networks like TikTok, the hashtag #plantsoftikt, for example. has amassed over 6 billion views to date. Creating Instagram oases at home has become quick and easy, with home delivery sites like The Sill and Bloomscape offering alternatives to local shops.

But how green is your vegetation? It seems logical that more plants would be beneficial to the environment; after all, they produce the oxygen we breathe. But recent research has shown that houseplants don’t do as much in terms of improving air quality as first thought. And they have a toll on the planet, belied by their ecological aspect.
Indoor plants offer therapeutic and wellness benefits, but their industry takes an environmental toll.

Indoor plants offer therapeutic and wellness benefits, but their industry takes an environmental toll. Credit: Morsa Images/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Although it is challenging to quantify the environmental impact of houseplants (outdoor gardening, cut flowers and potted flowers are often lumped together with houseplants in studies of the business of horticulture), behind your local plant shop or e-commerce are billions. – dollar industry that requires a massive amount of resources to grow and transport vegetation to your home. In the US alone, there are more than 2,300 indoor plant growers and sales were worth $691 million in 2019, according to a US Department of Agriculture census report.

“Growing indoor foliage plants is a very intensive process,” said Dr. Loren R. Oki, environmental horticulture specialist at the University of California, Davis and co-director of the University of California Nursery and Floriculture Alliance. “There is a high density of plants, there are rapid changes (between growing and shipping the plants). It’s a really complex system… They need a lot of resources like energy, labor, water (and) fertilizers “, as well as potting mix. .

The hidden costs

Keeping an indoor garden has therapeutic and well-being benefits: both indoor and outdoor gardening can relieve stress, sharpen focus and help bring some much-needed green to urban environments. But horticulturist Missy Bidwell, who manages the greenhouse at Cornell Botanical Gardens in New York, also said it’s important to consider all the resources needed to grow and maintain houseplants and try to strike a balance. “When you stop and think about all the inputs, you have to (consider) the outputs: Do they have a bigger advantage? Do they have a bigger impact on your life?”

In recent years, the horticulture industry has made strides in areas such as energy-efficient greenhouses and improvements in water applications, but collective and pressing environmental impacts remain.

The billions of dollars behind your local plant store require huge amounts of resources and produce waste and pollution.

The billions of dollars behind your local plant store require huge amounts of resources and produce waste and pollution. Credit: Mansoreh Motamedi/Moment RF/Getty Images

Water use is further straining drought-prone areas, while nitrates from fertilizers have polluted the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the US, as well as drinking water in California, according to a report from UC Davis from 2012. These fertilizers also emit nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere nearly 300 times more than carbon dioxide.

Pesticides are necessary in the industry, Oki points out, because “houseplants and other nursery products are aesthetic products,” he said. “They have to be perfect. If the plant has a brown leaf, people won’t buy it. So there are consumer pressures that growers have to deal with as well.”

Then there is the potting mix in which your plants grow. It is often composed of peat thanks to its ability to retain moisture and nutrients. But beyond harvesting, the world’s peatlands are rapidly being depleted by fires and development, making their use in horticulture particularly intense. Peat protects the environment with its prodigious ability to absorb and store carbon: damaged peatlands do the opposite, emitting at least 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to Nature.

And waste is also a problem: as with many industries, the horticulture sector has a serious single-use plastic problem. “Plastics are in everything we do, from pots to soil bags (to) plastic labels, plastic sleeves,” Bidwell said.

"This piece of nature is wrapped in one of the most toxic materials for nature," said Andreas Szankay, owner of the plant shop, about the plastic pots in which the plants are grown.  He and his partner use biodegradable pots as an alternative.

“This piece of nature is wrapped in one of the most toxic materials for nature,” plant shop owner Andreas Szankay said of the plastic pots in which the plants are grown. He and his partner use biodegradable pots as an alternative. Credit: Roosevelt Nguyen

Take the petroleum-based plastic pots your houseplants come in. According to the USDA, large growers and nurseries use tens of millions of plastic pots in a single season. They are not recyclable in many places and 98% end up in landfills. In 2009, the USDA estimated that the container growing industry had produced 4 billion units, equivalent to 1.66 billion pounds of plastic.

“This piece of nature is wrapped in one of the most toxic materials for nature,” said Andreas Szankay, owner of a plant shop in Brooklyn. “It doesn’t really have to be that way.”

The alternative is biodegradable pots, which Szankay and his wife Stephanie aim to popularize with their shop, Pollyn. They replant all their nursery plants in bio pots, which are made from materials such as coconut fiber, cow dung and paper pulp.

Bio-tests keep plants healthier because they “allow more air and water exchange,” Andreas explained, and can help fertilize a plant’s roots, depending on the material. They are easily found through Amazon or Home Depot, and Szankay hopes that nurseries that supply the plants will start using them as they arrive in stores already in pots.

Conscious changes

In the scheme of things, your houseplant collection probably has far less environmental impact than what’s in your cupboard or fridge. And, as with the food and fashion industries, it can seem like one person adopting sustainable practices is barely eliminating a much bigger problem that requires bigger players to lead the way. But there are decisions you can make if you want a more sustainable indoor garden.

The first thing you can do is consider your own “plant miles” when adding new additions to your collection, according to Bidwell.

Propagating plant cuttings in water or soil to grow new ones is the most environmentally friendly way to grow a collection.

Propagating plant cuttings in water or soil to grow new ones is the most environmentally friendly way to grow a collection. Credit: Wachirawit Iemlerkchai/Moment RF/Getty Images

Buying locally helps, “because you’re not using fuel emissions and things like that to acquire your plants,” he said. But you can also use cuttings to create new plants, a process called propagation, with a little help from the Internet. “You can do plant swaps and you can share with neighbors,” Bidwell suggested, “especially with some of the houseplants that are very easy to propagate?”

If you shop online, do your research on where the plants come from. Companies like Bloomscape in Detroit and Rooted in New York, for example, ship directly from the greenhouse, shortening your plant’s journey by cutting through the store.

To avoid using peat, TikTok users recommend alternatives such as coconut coir fiber and carbon ash residue known as biochar, which have been studied as viable alternatives.
But the best thing you can do is consider the plants you have. Investigate whether or not you have the conditions (and motivation) to keep delicate plants happy, and opt for a less fussy resident if not. According to a recent Business Insider report, Americans kill nearly half of the houseplants they bring home, and plant deaths in supply chains and stores have been exacerbated by recent demand. Social media trends have also made rare plants like white variegated monsteras or pink princess philodendrons highly coveted, but just because you can find a plant on Etsy doesn’t mean you should buy it on impulse . Focusing on water-efficient, low-light plants will make it easier to care for your own collection and create less demand on growers to supply high-maintenance varieties.
Not everyone is a perfect plant parent (again, like this writer), but it’s wise to bring home anything you can’t care for, and there are options if a plant looks faded, wilted, and stubbornly determined to die. YouTube and TikTok videos offer countless tutorials on how to rescue your collection from pests or overwatering: In a viral video, TikTok user @the.plant.baddie offers helpful tips on plant rot anxiety-inducing root, with a soothing soundtrack. of lo-fi rhythms. You can also learn when and how to transplant, or how to propagate healthy cuttings to create a whole new plant. (Just be sure to compost what you can’t save.)

“Being a good steward of your plants is really important,” Bidwell said. “Bringing living things (home) is important and you need to take care of them.”

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