Generally, once in your home, indoor plants are pretty neutral regarding the environment. Although they can reduce indoor air pollution a little, houseplants aren't directly doing anything negative or positive. That's the first part of the answer.
The more complicated part of the question is what led them to you in the first place. We're talking about where they were grown, how they got to your home, and what they're growing in. Finally, how you're looking after them can significantly affect your climate footprint and the environment in general.
It may seem that houseplants would have zero impact on the environment. They are, after all, "green" and wholesome living things, right? Wrong! Sort of.
Like most things in life, everything we do impacts the climate and the world we live in, to some degree, even houseplant ownership.
Fortunately, the impact of houseplants generally is not as significant as other types of human activity. I've provided lots of tips later on, to try and help you be even more sustainable with your indoor gardening.
Individually, in most cases, we're not going to change the world or do anything meaningful to affect climate change. But we should be conscious and step up to the plate where we can. As houseplant owners, we can do better (me included).
There is a lot to consider, and this isn't the place to be too philosophical, but I think houseplants can provide many benefits that make them worthwhile. Granted they're not the best air cleaners for improved indoor air quality but they do have a whole host of positives, as well as helping connect us to nature.
We might not change the world, but morally and as a large powerful group of consumers, I think we're obligated to play our part where we can and help make a difference.
This article looks at why houseplants are bad for the environment, what we can do differently, and what we can do better.
Starting with the least damaging to the worst, some of what follows may surprise you. Let's get started with the three P's and the W.
A spin on "food miles", "plant miles" are a basic measure used to calculate how much greenhouse gases your plant has created in terms of being grown and transported to your home.
Most houseplants are grown in central and large locations before being shipped to other countries. For example, most of Europe's indoor plants are grown in Nurseries in the Netherlands.
A lot of energy and time is spent growing the houseplants to a decent size, years in some cases, and then being shipped out. That's a lot of carbon dioxide and taken at face value, this sounds bad.
But it may be better than you're expecting. One plant being grown with a specialist lamp, round the clock care and then being sent halfway around the world using up fossil fuels would have a mammoth footprint. However, nurseries and growers are incredibly efficient with the resources and space used.
Thousands of plants could be grown in one average sized greenhouse at the same time. They're then packaged up and shipped together. The overall footprint is spread across all thousand plants when doing it in bulk like this.
This is a relatively easy one. The current systems in place for the manufacturers are already reasonably efficient. Therefore, where you can have the most impact is where you buy and get your houseplants home.
The vast majority of houseplants come from stores in plastic pots. They're lightweight, fairly durable and they're also affordable. This keeps the costs down for the growers, sellers, and of course, us, the buyer.
In principle, a plastic plant pot (like most plastics) won't rot or break down easily and you could have it for life. Except it doesn't work like that.
Once you've amassed a small houseplant collection, you will have a large number of pots, and inevitably you will lose some plants over time, creating a surplus of these plastic pots laying around.
It's further complicated because the plastic will often become brittle over time. This eventually leads to damage and after a few years, many pots will start to break and become unusable. Essentially, although the plastic itself can last for hundreds of years, the shape or form it's in, doesn't.
Fortunately, you can easily apply the Reduce, Reuse and Recycle principle here.
What your houseplants are growing in can have a substantial environmental impact and using peat moss is damaging on a colossus scale. The major concern here is that most, shop brought houseplants are grown in a peat based medium.
The familiar material is harvested from peat bogs, a type of wetland that holds and locks away one-third of the world's soil carbon. The bogs also reduce flooding in the local area, improve water quality and provide a habitat for wildlife, some of which are already rare or endangered.
Peat isn't even a particularly fantastic growing medium. It's mainly used because it's lightweight, cheap to harvest and retains a decent level of moisture that plants enjoy.
However, James Wong points out that it contains no nutrients, breaks down after a few years, and if allowed to dry out completely, will often become water-repelling (hydrophobic), so it's tricky to work with.
It can't get any simpler. Don't use peat; use a peat-free potting mix instead. Don't support the destruction and harvesting of peat bogs.
Of all the problems I've covered, wastage or "throwaway culture" is the number one worst issue.
Unfortunately, it's the end result for many houseplants, either accidentally or purposely. It ranks as the very worst issue because it's a culmination of everything that led that plant to you in the first place.
In the worst possible case scenario, it will include:
If your plant is quickly discarded, or you fail to provide the proper plant care and it ends up like the plants below, then the environmental impact is magnified. Especially as someone is likely to go out and replace it with another.
All you need to do is keep them alive and happy.
Sounds simple. And yes, even the best of us lose plants sometimes; it can't be helped. There is no perfect fix, but these are my top four tips.
It's almost impossible to have truly carbon neutral houseplants growing in our homes. The supply chains in the horticulture industry will all generate and emit greenhouse gases.
In recent years companies have been happy to say they're carbon neutral but greenwashing is a persistent and prevalent problem. It's hard to know who to trust. Even if the company is genuine, we as consumers will generate separate emissions as covered above.
We can't erase our carbon footprint but we can reduce it.
This might all sound doom and gloom, but we have to accept that almost everything we do in life will generate greenhouse gases. Even Electric cars aren't perfect, nor can they ever be truly carbon neutral. But over the life of the vehicle they're generally "better".
I think that's what's important. We can't erase our carbon footprint when it comes to the hobby of indoor gardening, but we can reduce it. The pointers and issues I've highlighted above can help with this massively.
Finally, as consumers, we have a lot of power. Sellers want to sell what we want to buy. As soon as that starts to happen at scale, prices reduce for everyone and it becomes common.
An excellent example of that is rare houseplants. Initially crazy expensive, they often become far more reasonable and easier to find over time.
If there is a demand for bio-degradable pots, peat free potting mixes, or more locally grown plants, then it will be fulfilled. How do you create that need? By buying these things now and showing the sellers there is a demand for it.
Remember, almost all houseplants are essentially environmentally friendly plants. It's just how what we do with them that determines how bad (or good) they are for the environment.