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How green is your home plant collection?

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

From lush, whimsical fiddle-leaf figs to laid-back snake plants, indoor houseplants have become ubiquitous in the homes of many millennials and Gen Zers — especially since caring for them became a hobby. soothing and boosting serotonin at the start of the pandemic.

New plant parents (including this writer) caused a surge in Google searches for popular flora such as pothos and prayer plants in early 2020, while seasoned keepers offered newbie tips on social media platforms like TikTok – the hashtag #plantsoftiktok, for example, has amassed over 6 billion views to date. Creating Instagrammable oases at home has become quick and easy, with home delivery sites such as The Sill and Bloomscape offering alternatives to local stores.

But how green is your greenery? It seems logical that more plants would benefit the environment – after all, they produce the oxygen we breathe. But recent research has shown that indoor plants don’t improve air quality as much as originally believed. And they have an impact on the planet, belied by their eco-friendly appearance.

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

Although it is difficult to quantify the environmental impact of houseplants – outdoor gardening, cut flowers and potted flowers are often lumped together with houseplants in studies of horticulture – behind your store multi-billion dollar industry that requires a massive amount of resources to grow and transport greenery to your home. In the United States alone, there are more than 2,300 houseplant growers and sales were $691 million in 2019, according to a United States 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 are high plant densities, there are rapid turnovers (between growing and shipping plants). It’s a really complex system… They require a lot of resources like energy, labor -work, water (and) fertilizers”, as well as the soil. .

The hidden fees

Maintaining an indoor garden has therapeutic and wellness benefits – indoor and outdoor gardening can alleviate stress, sharpen attention and help bring some green into urban environments. But horticulturist Missy Bidwell, who manages the greenhouse at Cornell Botanic Gardens in New York, also said it’s important to be aware of all the resources needed to grow and maintain your houseplants, and to try to find a balance. “When you stop and think about all the inputs, you have to (consider) the outputs – do they have a bigger benefit? Do they have a bigger impact on your life?”

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

How green is your home plant collection?

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

Water use is putting more strain on drought-prone areas, while nitrates from fertilizers have contaminated the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, as well as California’s drinking water, according to a UC Davis 2012 report. Nitrous oxide is also emitted by these fertilizers, a greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere almost 300 times more than carbon dioxide.

Pesticides are needed in industry, Oki points out, because “houseplants and other nursery products are cosmetic 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 producers also have to deal with.

Then there is the soil in which your plants grow. It is most often made of peat moss thanks to its ability to retain moisture and nutrients. But, beyond harvesting, the world’s bogs are rapidly being depleted due to fires and development, making its use in horticulture particularly difficult. 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 per year, according to Nature.

And waste is also an issue – as in 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, to plastic sleeves,” Bidwell said.

How green is your home plant collection?

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

Take the petroleum-based plastic pots your houseplants arrive 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 calculated that the container crop industry produced 4 billion units, or 1.66 billion pounds of plastic.

“This piece of nature is wrapped in one of nature’s most toxic materials,” said Brooklyn plant store owner Andreas Szankay. “It doesn’t really have to be like that.”

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

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

Conscious changes

In the scheme of things, your houseplant collection probably has far less impact on the environment than what’s in your closet or refrigerator. And, as in the food and fashion industries, it can feel like one individual adopting sustainable practices is barely solving a much larger problem that requires the bigger players to lead the way. But there are decisions you can make if you want a more sustainable indoor garden.

According to Bidwell, the first thing you can do is consider your own “vegetable miles” when adding new additions to your collection.

How green is your home plant collection?

Propagating plant clippings 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, “so you’re not using fuel emissions and things like that to get your plants,” she said. But you can also use clippings to create new plants – a process called propagation – with a little help from the internet. “Can you do plant swaps and can you share with neighbors,” Bidwell suggested, “especially with some of the houseplants that are super easy to propagate?”

If you’re shopping online, do your research to find out where the plants come from. Companies like Bloomscape in Detroit and Rooted in New York, for example, ship directly from the greenhouse, reducing your plant’s trip by eliminating the store.

To avoid using peat, TikTok users recommend alternatives such as fibrous coconut fiber and the carbon ash residue known as biochar – both of which have been researched as viable alternatives.
But the best thing to do is to pay attention to the plants you have. Research whether or not you have the conditions (and motivation) to keep wayward plants happy, and opt for a less demanding resident if you don’t. 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 such as white variegated monsteras or pink philodendron princesses highly coveted, but just because you can find a plant on Etsy doesn’t mean you have to buy it on impulse. Focusing on water-efficient, low-light plants will make it easier to maintain your own collection and create less demand from growers to supply high-maintenance varieties.
Not everyone is a perfect plant parent (again, like this writer), but it’s wise to repatriate those you can’t care for, and there are options if a plant appears to be discolored, wilted and stubbornly determined to die. YouTube and TikTok videos provide endless tutorials on how to save your collection from pests or overwatering – in a viral video, TikTok user @the.plant.baddie gives helpful tips on rot anxiety-inducing roots, set to a soothing soundtrack of lo-fi beats. You can also learn when and how to repot, or how to propagate healthy trimmings to create an entirely new plant. (Just be sure to compost anything you can’t save.)

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


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