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Are Houseplants Bad for the Environment?

"Are there negative effects of plants on the environment?"

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.

Houseplants placed together on grass outside

The vast majority of houseplants end up being thrown away eventually. It's not great, but the good news is there are many things we can do differently to reduce the environmental impact of being plant parents.

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.

OurHouseplants.com Position
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.

The Issues We Need to Consider - From Least to Worst

  1. Plant Miles
  2. Plastic
  3. Peat
  4. Wastage

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Plant Miles

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.

A mix of houseplants, and plants for an outdoor garden for sale outside of a shop

There are many houseplants for sale at a garden centre, but each one only has a fraction of the carbon emissions the growers and transporters produce.

What Can I Do?

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.

  • Shop Brought.
    It's how and when you get to the store that matters. Driving a long way to pick up just one plant and then straight back home is not going to be as efficient as running your usual errands and picking the plant up at the same time. Bonus points if you use public transport or can walk to the store.
  • Mail Order.
    Having things delivered directly to your door might not seem environmentally friendly, but it often is. Let me explain.

    Most courier firms are very logistic ordinated. A single courier could have 50 deliveries to make in a single day. If all 50 people had instead driven to pick up their items from a shop, the overall carbon footprint would likely be significantly higher (potentially 50 times as much) than the single courier vehicle doing all the work.
  • Propagate your Own.
    If you learn to propagate your own plants you can create new ones. This should have a low impact as well as being essentially free. Obviously, you may not want several of the same plants! Variety is the spice of life and all that. But you could team up with a friend or go to a plant swap. This means you'd propagate plants and exchange them for ones you want.

Plastic

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.

plastic plant pots stacked together

Store your old pots so you have a choice when you come to repot you potted plants in the future.

What Can I Do?

Fortunately, you can easily apply the Reduce, Reuse and Recycle principle here.

  • Reduce.
    Reduce the number of plastic pots you buy. If your plant comes with a plastic pot, there is little you can do. But some retailers have started to sell "plastic-less" plants. With these often, the container is made with coconut coir or other biodegradable material, op for these if you can, as it's a great way to avoid plastic altogether.
  • Reuse.
    Use your existing collection of plant pots for your houseplants and don't buy standalone plastic containers. When you upsize a plant, keep and store the original plastic container it was in, rather than throwing it out. Down the line, you might be able to use it for a new plant, most will stack together so they don't have to take up much storage space.
  • Recycle.
    Generally, recycling should be the last option. The previous two approaches will essentially be "carbon neutral", but any recycling will require energy, resources and produce volatile organic compounds to create a new product. But if the pot is broken, or you have too many hanging around, recycling is the way to go.

    A good garden center will have a take back or recycling scheme in store. In the United States the most popular are the programs run by Lowes and Home Depot. In the United Kingdom, your options are more limited, but Dobbies have recently started their own.

    I'm not sure about other countries, but if you have something different, please do leave a comment below as you could be helping out fellow readers who aren't sure what to do with their plastic.
biodegradable plant pot made of coir suitable for houseplants

A coconut coir pot with drainage holes could make an excellent plastic replacement for your tropical plants or any that need good drainage. One with compact and thick sides like this could last up to 3 years or more.

Peat

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.

Peat Moss piled high in a grey plastic plant container

Even though Peat is organic matter, it takes a long time to form (less than 1mm every year) so it's not considered a renewable resource.

What Can I Do?

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.

  • Reduce your Peat Usage.
    I'll be honest. I didn't initially go "peat free" completely, even when I discovered how awful it truly is. It took me time to adapt and try out other "blends" and alternatives that are out there.

    Next time you buy a bag, go for peat reduced, or mix up your own blends. You can put loads of things into a potting mix, which can be more beneficial in the longer term. Here is a list of 10 common things people use.
  • Go Peat Free.
    100% Peat Free should always be the end goal, for you and the horticulture industry worldwide. The first option mentioned above is a stepping stone for that transition.

    Continuing the use of peat and supporting the destruction of huge ecosystems, harming wildlife and releasing so much CO2 unnecessarily, just can't be justified. In 2024 the UK will be one of the first countries to finally start banning it's use.
Coconut Coir slab compressed and ready for water to be added

Coconut Coir often comes in compressed blocks like this 5kg one. Add water and it will expand to 75 liters - The same as a large bag of peat compost.

Wastage

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:

  • The emissions produced by growing and then transporting the plant to your home.
  • The energy and oil used to create a brand-new plastic pot to put it in.
  • The destruction of a peat bog to have it growing in a peat based medium.

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.

A number of dead indoor houseplants in a rubbish pie outside

Perhaps it's time to go and buy new plants! But rather than keep buying replacements, the best thing would have been to look after these better, given them away or reused all those pots.

What Can I Do?

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.

  • Look after your plants.
    Neglect, poor care or even mistakes can cause your houseplants to develop problems and issues.

    We've spent years (almost ten now!) creating and adding content to OurHouseplants.com. You have a wealth of knowledge and experience to tap into, so check out our Plant Hub, find your houseplant and read up on it. If you still have unanswered questions, put them in the comments, and we'll get back to you.
  • Only buy houseplants you can provide the rights conditions for.
    Too many people buy plants they can't keep happy in their homes. I get so many requests for help because their plants aren't doing well. A little questioning and it turns out they're growing them in a windowless bathroom or in too-cold temperatures. Plants are living things that can be fussy indoors, treat them right. Read the first point above again.
  • Avoid "designed to die" plants.
    These are plants that, by design, can only live indoors for a short time. Some can be with their owners for many years, but this is a minority and most are long gone within 3 months. I'm talking about plants like Chrysanthemum, Poinsettia or the Gerbera.

    This can be tricky to avoid as many stores will push these types of plants on you by offering them cheaply. You may buy them as gifts or even get given them by others. Just think carefully whenever you're tempted as whenever you buy one it encourages growers and sellers to keep producing them, when their efforts could be spent on more sustainable houseplants.
  • Only discard a plant when it's really dead.
    Sometimes people get bored of houseplants and sort of purposely neglect them, or fail to address problems. We have guides for pests and diseases and if you're tired of your plant then see if you can give it away to a new owner instead.

    Finally, if you've got a flowering plant that's gone over, 9 times out of 10 you can get it to re-bloom again. Do this instead of replacing it with another one. Moth Orchids are notoriously discarded by many people after flowering, but they can be made to easily bloom again.

Let's Sum Up

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.



About the Author

Tom Knight

Tom Knight

Over the last 20 years, Tom has successfully owned hundreds of houseplants and is always happy to share knowledge and lend his horticulture skills to those in need. He is the main content writer for the .

Also on Ourhouseplants.com


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