In Depth

Why houseplants may not be green

Experts say our potted pals are causing damage to the environment

Millions of Britons have emerged from a year of Covid-19 lockdowns with a new national obsession: houseplants.

But while our collections of calathea and succulents can improve our immediate surroundings, they can also have a detrimental impact on the wider environment. Here is what to avoid for a “greener” approach to “plant parenting”.

Peat

The “vast majority” of houseplants are grown in peat, a soil-like substance formed from decayed organic matter, says The Telegraph

But the mining of peat “is now widely condemned as unsustainable, environment-wrecking and carbon-emitting,” the newspaper continues. Peatlands act as “carbon sinks”, absorbing and storing huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere - so when peat is harvested, CO2 is released, increasing greenhouse gas levels.

And like coal or oil, peat is “effectively a finite resource”, regenerating at a rate of only one milimetre annually. 

Dr Trevor Dines of conservation charity Plantlife told the BBC that “commercial extraction can remove over 500 years worth of growth in a single year”.

Dines recommends that eco-conscious plant-buyers go for options that don’t need peat to grow, such as orchids or cacti. 

The National Trust is also working with nurseries to develop “a range of peat-free indoor plants that should be on sale by late 2021 or early 2022”, The Telegraph reports. 

All houseplant lovers will have to look for greener alternatives from May 2024, from which date the government will ban sales of peat for “amateur usage”, under newly announced plans to protect peatlands, reports The Times

Commercial growers will be able to continue using peat until some time between 2028 and 2030, to allow growers “time to find and get used to using good alternatives,” the paper adds.

Plant miles

“You may have decided to reduce your international travel to protect the environment, but your plants are still shipping across the world,” says Fay Kenworthy, co-founder of Sheffield-based plant-trading initiative PlantSwap.

Indeed, many of our favourite plants are transported thousands of miles before landing up in our homes, leaving “a significant ecological footprint”, she told the BBC.

Although 65% of UK plant imports are from Holland, just a few hundred miles away, “the process is still international”, writes lifestyle journalist Clare Vooght on the i news site. Some Dutch growers plant from seed, but others import cuttings or young plants from further afield. 

Succulents are often grown in Tenerife, and poinsettias in Israel, while orchids are propagated in Indonesia to make use of cheaper labour, before being shipped to Europe, Vooght explains. 

On the other hand, provided plants are 100% Dutch, concerns about “racking up 'plant miles' on their journey from the huge nurseries in the Netherlands” to the UK may prove overblown, writes botanist James Wong in The Guardian.  

“All you need do is look at a map to see that Holland is as close, if not closer, to many of us here in Britain than other parts of the UK,” says Wong. 

And plants from Holland are usually imported to the UK by road and ferry, “which produces not only a fraction of the carbon emissions per mile of flying, but significantly less than smaller scale deliveries would generate from UK nurseries”.

To further reduce those carbon footprints, exchange unwanted plants, cuttings and seedlings at local plant swaps, or propagate plants yourself by asking friends and family for seeds and cuttings.

“It’s a great way to share the love, get plants for free, and (almost) eliminate all the associated emissions,” Wong adds. 

Black plastic pots

Many houseplants are sold in black plastic plant pots, which are cheap to produce and protect the plant by stopping too much light from getting to the roots. 

But these pots can be a “nightmare” to recycle, teenage campaigner Amy Meek, who runs environmental charity Kids Against Plastic with her younger sister Ella, told the BBC.

According to analysis by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) charity, only about 10% of local authorities in the UK accept the pots.

“Many local authorities reject even non-black plastic pots,” says the BBC. One reason cited is that “they are considered contaminated”, the broadcaster reports, but the main stumbling block is that black plastic “often cannot be detected by sorting machines at recycling centres”, so the pots end up in landfill or being incinerated instead. 

However, more eco-friendly alternatives have been hitting the market.

BBC environment correspondent David Gregory-Kumar reported in late 2018 that “a new colour of pot is poised to solve all these problems”. Developed by a company in Tipton that manufactures 100 million plastic plant pots every year, the pots are taupe - “a sort of mushroomy greyish brown” - but still protect plant roots from light, he explained.

After being trialled in commercial nurseries in the Midlands, the taupe newcomers were rolled out in garden centres nationwide. “It's extraordinary to think 100 million pots once destined for landfill could now be recycled instead,” Gregory-Kumar wrote.

Biodegradable pots have also been developed, and a growing number of organisations, including the Horticultural Trades Association and RHS Gardens, offer plant pot recycling or "take back" schemes.

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