Are Your Houseplants Bad for the Environment?

Environmentalist Summer Rayne Oakes in her New York City apartment, full of plants. Photo: Summer Rayne Oakes.

Houseplants make your home more enjoyable and they help to lower stress levels. Undoubtedly, this is why they’re the quintessential housewarming gift. Houseplants also improve indoor air quality. Or do they?

The Misconception About Houseplants and Air Quality

There’s actually a common misconception about houseplants. For a long time we’ve believed that houseplants, especially varieties like spider plants, work hard to scrub indoor air of harmful contaminants. But a  study from Drexel University burst that bubble. According to the study, adequate ventilation is much more effective in removing volatile organic compounds from indoor environments than houseplants. In fact, it would take 10 to 1,000 plants per square meter to do as good a job as opening some windows.

However, this doesn’t mean we should bother with houseplants. They create a peaceful, harmonious backdrop for daily living, and help to keep us connected with nature. In addition, for pets who live primarily indoors, plants that are healthy for them to chew on offer a source of greens and fiber.

Rubens Peale with a Geranium
Rubens Peale with a Geranium by Rembrandt Peale, 1801. Image: National Gallery of Art.

Impact of Houseplants on the Environment

While houseplants may not have the same impact on indoor air quality as we once thought, they do have environmental impacts if we don’t grow them in an environmentally-conscious way. Some exotic plants are taken from the wild, so it’s important to know where your nursery or landscaper sources them. It’s always environmentally-preferable to plant native plants for your area anyway.

Plants also have a carbon footprint because they have to be transported to reach their final destination on your window ledge or kitchen counter. Like buying produce, buying plants from local businesses that source them locally is an ideal way to go. Other ideas are to have a plant swap with your friends if your indoor garden needs some refreshing. Or, plant new plants from seeds or clippings.

Those black plastic pots are not easily recyclable…

Unfortunately, the plastic pots that your plants arrive in often end up as part of the waste stream. Those common black plastic pots that most houseplants come in are not easily recyclable. So, it’s a good idea to either return them to the nursery, or continue to use them and just put the plant in a decorative pot or basket.

Look for natural and organic soils and fertilizers.

Coyoacán Plant Nursery
Coyoacán Plant Nursery, Mexico City. Photo: Yael Bonilla.

Surprisingly, the soil that your plants are potted in may not be eco-friendly either. For example, peat moss is an extremely popular soil additive, and with good reason. Lightweight and water absorbent, it keeps soil moist longer than other additives. However, peat moss is a naturally-sourced but finite resource. It takes thousands of years for peat moss to form, and today it’s being removed from the Earth in massive quantities. Instead of peat-based soil mixes, look for types with natural materials like coir, a sustainable and renewable natural fiber that’s made from coconut husks. (It’s the same material you see in a lot of eco-friendly doormats.)

Most of us know by now that organic gardening is the best way to protect both the environment and your health from horticultural chemicals. The same rule applies to growing houseplants. Instead of applying chemical insecticides and fertilizers, always look for organic, or at least natural products. This will help to ensure your family members, including pets, are exposed to fewer harmful chemicals.

Potted plants bring the natural world into your home, so it only makes sense ensure they’re healthy for the Earth as well as all of the members of your household.


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