One thing plant lovers have in common is the desire to bring more green life into the world. But are houseplants necessarily good for our steadily warming planet? Maybe it’s the stark reality of mass deforestation on land and commercial trawling on the ocean’s floor that compels us to bring plants indoors. Filling our homes with plants can help subdue the overwhelming feeling of helplessness in the face of global climate collapse, but does creating an environment indoors where plants have a chance to thrive actually help the outdoors where the stakes are rising?
Top Ways Plants Help the Environment
We have to grapple with how the houseplant industry causes harm to the environment. It isn’t just cheeseburgers and fossil fuels that are warming the planet and melting the ice caps in far off places. We have to take a closer look at our own lush little patch of the biosphere, confront the ways in which plant care isn’t always sustainable, and discuss what we can do to make a difference for everyone, including the plants themselves.
Plants Are Nature’s Air Filters
Research shows that the plants in our homes do help clean up the air by removing harmful chemicals and reducing carbon emissions (Gubb 2018).
Here are some of our favorites:
- Palm trees filter out acetone, xylene and toluene.
- Philodendron aids in air purification by removing formaldehyde.
- The large surface area of the Rubber plant’s leaves act like a sponge to convert carbon dioxide into clean oxygen.
- Pin-striped Dracaena performs like nature’s stealth air filter removing the worst contaminants and at the same time increasing indoor humidity, which aids respiratory health.
- And the twirly curly Spider plant can eliminate common toxins emitted from cleaning products and furniture varnish in a matter of days.
Potted plants are no replacement for biodiverse landscapes of trees, shrubs, mosses and other plants that sequester carbon and provide habitats for other organisms, a crucial role of environmental protection that is threatened by development and industrial agriculture (Choliq 2017).
When it comes to the global houseplant industry, the benefit of houseplants on human health and indoor environments is sadly tainted by common practices that are largely unregulated (Dellinger 2021). The good news is there are ingredients in commercial soil that we can avoid, and best practices in sourcing plants that we can embrace to reduce our footprint while keeping our tranquil indoor jungles intact.
Not All Soil is Equal = Read the Ingredient Label
Commercial soils contain ingredients that leave a cavernous ecological footprint. Hidden in bags of potting soil (yes, even the organic kind) are nonrenewable additives that take from the planet far more than they give to your houseplants.
Slow-growing sphagnum and peat moss (commonly found in potting soil) native to wetland habitats are extracted for commercial use at a rate faster than they can regrow their populations, thereby disrupting peatland communities and endangering their shared ecosystems. When peat is kept intact, it serves as an effective carbon store and research shows that peat deposits hold intense carbon levels that rival the forests of trees overhead (Beaulne 2021). Vermiculite and perlite add a buoyant lightness to soil that helps plants’ roots breathe but they are nonrenewable minerals extracted through mining that can release asbestos and fine dusts into the air, proving highly toxic to the environment and to any humans who inhale them.
Renewable alternatives include compost, leaf mold, rice hulls, sawdust, pine bark, wood chips, or coconut coir — a fiber from coconut husks that shares many similarities with peat moss but is far more earth-friendly. Check with your local community gardens for fresh compost, shop for premade soil blends online, or make your own blend with a combination of renewable ingredients listed above.
Track Your Plant Miles
Plants have a reputation for being rooted in place but those that are purchased from plant shops often travel hundreds if not thousands of miles from their nurseries where they are grown to where they are sold. Additional miles are added afterwards, when they are boxed and shipped to online customers rather than purchased in-store. Long before you take your plants home, the energy required to heat the greenhouses they’re grown in year-round in colder climates is not without impact. Thankfully, new developments such as geothermal heating offer environmentally-friendly alternatives to nursery heating with electric or gas.
At Horti, we work with local nurseries to shrink the miles that our plants travel, minimizing waste in packaging and fuel usage where we can. We also offset our carbon footprint to ship by supporting Pachama's Jarí Para Forest Conservation Project in the Amazon Rainforest. Each You can do your part by bringing your newly-purchased plants home on foot, by bike, or on public transportation, which not only helps to reduce the emissions of taking a car, but you can be sure of the joy that a burst of green will bring to whatever bus or train car you’re in.
Put Thought Into Your Pot
Nearly all plants need to be repotted into bigger, sturdier containers after you bring them home, but plant sellers too often push their pottery onto consumers with little education about what your plants really need. To make your pots earth-friendly, avoid synthetic or petroleum-based materials and opt for containers made from natural earth instead, like our signature hand-painted terra cotta clay pots.
For lighter-weight and more colorful options than terra cotta, we love Ecoforms, a family-run business making durable planters with biodegradable materials like rice hulls, starch-based and water-soluble binding agents.
Decorative outer pots often don’t have drainage holes, so keep your plant in an inner pot with drainage so that the water doesn’t sit on the roots. Nothing beats reusing what you already have, which is why we suggest saving your larger nursery pots for your smaller plants to graduate into. Some plant stores and nurseries that you frequent might even be willing to exchange you for different size inner containers. Just ask!
Plan Ahead, Reap Success
One of the best practices you can implement in your plant care habits is planning ahead. The system isn’t designed to make it easy to care for the environment, so it requires forward thinking and active engagement.
Sustainable plant care doesn’t require a lot of money, but what does accrue costs is poor planning. Last minute purchases and hurried decisions are inherently wasteful of money and all of the resources that it takes to grow a small seedling into a plant. Brainstorm strategies to conserve energy and utilize the abundant resources all around you ahead of time. Purchase plants from a local shop or nursery, and choose houseplants that your indoor environment can realistically support.
To reduce water costs (especially if you live in a drought-prone area), set a bucket or tub outside to collect rainwater during the rainy seasons. You can use these rainwater stores to water your houseplants and thereby reduce water consumption. This water that hydrates your plants will, in turn, evaporate back into the environment, a completion of the beautiful cycle of photosynthesis.
Returning to sustainable plant care practices is a reminder that nature has all that we need. If we will just listen and collaborate, then we all can thrive.
Antao, Vinicius C et al. “Libby Vermiculite Exposure and Risk of Developing Asbestos-related Lung and Pleural Diseases.” Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine 18(2012): 161-7.
Beaulne, Joannie et al. “Peat Deposits Store More Carbon Than Trees in Forested Peatlands of the Boreal Biome” Scientific Reports 11(2021).
Choliq, MBS and R L Kaswanto. “Correlation of Carbon Stock and Biodiversity Index at the Small Scale Agroforestry Landscape in Ciliwung Watershed” IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 91(2017).
Dellinger, AJ. “How to Make Sure Your Houseplant Obsession Isn't Killing the Planet” Mic 2021.
Norby, Richard J et al. “Rapid Loss of An Ecosystem Engineer: Sphagnum Decline in An Experimentally Warmed Bog.” Ecology and Evolution 9(2019): 12571-12585
Winkler, Marjorie G. and Calvin B. DeWitt. “Environmental Impacts of Peat Mining in the United States: Documentation for Wetland Conservation.” Environmental Conservation 12(1985):317–330.