Are Houseplants Actually Sustainable?

By Eva Astoul

In 2020, when the pandemic hit, the demand for houseplants hit a record high. More than ever before, people wanted to bring a bit of nature and wilderness into their homes while they were stuck inside for a few weeks.

It is not surprising that the houseplant industry was booming during such a tough period. Plants make any room look calm and alive, and they help ease anxiety. Having a houseplant also means that you have something to care for. You get excited to see it evolve and grow new leaves. 

There is no doubt that houseplants are nice to have around in our living spaces! But as plants remind us of the beauty of the natural world, we usually only see the positive aspects of them. 

But how sustainable are they, really? How is this houseplant craze impacting our planet? You’ll be surprised by the truth!  


Mass-production in unsustainable greenhouses

The main issue with growing and purchasing houseplants is that most plants we buy in nurseries or stores are mass-produced in a handful of industrial farms that are extremely resource-intensive and have a huge environmental impact and carbon footprint. 

For instance, plants are grown under strict heat and lighting conditions, meaning that a lot of energy is needed to produce them. 

When we look at the whole production chain of houseplants, we can actually see that the biggest source of carbon emissions comes from heating those greenhouses. 

Greenhouses need to be heated to always be at the correct temperature for optimal plant growth. Some of them can be as big as 160 acres, so imagine how much energy is needed to heat them! 

And guess how all this energy is made? Those massive greenhouses often run on fossil fuels, thus contributing to climate change and pollution. 

Counterintuitively, due to economies of scale, big farms are more fuel-efficient than smaller ones. Yet, we should not forget that they are still extremely unsustainable. 

Those large-scale greenhouses also take up massive portions of land that would otherwise be home to trees and other carbon sinks. For example, Costa Farms uses about 4,000 acres of land to grow its plants, which is the size of more than 3,000 football fields! 

Plus, growing thousands and thousands of plants on such a huge surface means that enormous quantities of fertilizer and water are used. Metrolina, the largest single-site heated greenhouse in the United States, uses a total of 1.5 million gallons of water each day! 

This number is terrifying when we know that, around the world, 1.1 billion people lack access to water, and 2.7 billion suffer from water scarcity at least one month of the year.  

Finally, it is important to note that not only are these huge greenhouses very unsustainable, but they are also making it harder for smaller ones to survive. Big producers grow plants at such a large scale that small farms cannot compete, and they struggle to make a profit.

Another major concern regarding the booming houseplant industry is that most plants are imported from faraway countries and travel hundreds, if not thousands of miles, before getting to our homes.  

Transporting plants from where they are grown to the store shelf and then to their final destination, our homes, has a non-negligible environmental impact, and we need to take it into account.

That is how the concept of “plant miles” was invented. “Plant miles” refer to the total distance houseplants travel between the nursery and your home.  

Generally, the higher the distance between the nursery, the store shelf, and your home, the more important the environmental footprint should be. Transporting plants over long distances, whether by air (especially by air!), water or road, generates a lot of carbon emissions. It is all the more true when transporting tropical plants that are imported and shipped from far away countries. So, in general, buying native plants that are grown locally will be more eco-friendly than importing them. However, it is crucial to keep in mind that it is not always the case. 

In some cases, producing plants in warmer climates (and then shipping them) eliminates the need for heated greenhouses, and thus, the carbon footprint can be lower than if the plants were grown locally in heated greenhouses.  

Another thing to remember is that sometimes, you may be geographically closer to a plant producer located abroad than a grower based in your own country. And if it is the case, it might be more sustainable to buy the foreign plant as opposed to the native one. 

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