8 Expert Reasons Your Houseplant Obsession Might Actually Be Harmful

houseplant collection in an apartment

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There are tons of worthwhile reasons why people own and love their houseplants. Our little leafy friends add structure and beauty to a room. They can absorb some pollutants in the air. There’s even proof they can reduce stress and increase your happiness and creativity.

But whether you’re a plant parent to many or just have one or two that brighten your day, we have some bad news. There’s a chance your houseplant obsession may be causing some environmental issues, according to experts.

  • 01 of 08

    It’s All in the Dirt

    person adding soil to a houseplant

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    Nathan Raab, founder of sustainable plant company Pointless Plants, told us that the main offender is peat moss. “Peat moss is basically something used in a lot of composts, [so] a lot of plants are grown in it,” explained Nathan. And while peat moss is organic, it’s not sustainable.”

    The reason it’s unsustainable is that peat moss is formed when organic material (mostly comprised of moss and plants), “is broken down over thousands of years [and] have decomposed, forming a brown type of mud called peat,” said Nathan. This peat moss grows in peat bogs, “which cover three percent of the planet and are incredibly rich in wildlife."

  • 02 of 08

    Peat Bogs to Absorb Carbon Dioxide

    Peat bogs in Ireland

    Tim Graham / Getty Images

    Along with hosting wildlife, peat bogs serve another important purpose. While these bogs only cover three percent of the planet, they account for a significant amount of the carbon dioxide absorbed in the ground, explained Nathan. “They actually hold twice the amount of carbon dioxide that a forest can hold over the same space.”

  • 03 of 08

    Peat Bogs Are Vital to Water Management

    wet peat bogs in the UK

    Ashley Cooper / Getty Images

    Nathan also told us that because peat bogs are extremely wet, they “cannot be built or farmed on unless destroyed, but they provide a vital role in our water management. The destruction of them leads to a lot more localized flooding.”

    If you’re thinking we should just grow more peat bogs, Nathan explained that that’s not a viable solution. “Peat bogs grow at a slow rate of 1mm a year. Some peat bogs are up to 12m deep, which [means they date] back to the last ice age.”

    All this narrows down to the fact that peat “isn't sustainable because we are using it at a faster rate than it can grow,” said Nathan.

  • 04 of 08

    Mining Peat Releases Carbon Dioxide

    researcher measuring the CO2 emissions from peat

    © Santiago Urquijo / Getty Images

    Nathan also explained that in order to extract peat moss from the bogs, a “ridiculous” amount of carbon dioxide is released.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    There’s No Real Reason to Use Peat for Houseplants

    person adding potting soil mix to a houseplant

    Delmaine Donson / Getty Images

    We also reached out to the UK's Royal Horticulture Society (RHS), who connected us with Emma Allen, one of the Garden Managers at RHS Garden Wisley. “I have been using peat-free composts for my houseplants for years now,” said Emma. “There really isn’t any need to use a peat-based compost, especially if you feed regularly, and again, there are some good natural products out there, like seaweed-based feeds."

    Nathan explained that the reason peat is such a go-to within the houseplant world is because peat is “cheap, accessible, and very good at holding moisture and acting as a growing medium.”

    Unfortunately, the horticulture industry, Nathan explained, “is massive and moves slowly. Sometimes things that have always been used are still being used because the infrastructure and know-how are already in place.”

  • 06 of 08

    There Are Alternatives to Peat

    closeup of coco coir

    The Spruce / Phoebe Cheong

    Coco coir is great and holds a lot of moisture just like peat,” said Nathan. Coco coir is made up of "the fibrous bits of the coconut that are often discarded after the contents of a coconut are used.”

    If you can’t find coco coir, then Nathan says, “any other material that holds moisture, such as woody materials like bark that can be found in the garden” can work, too. Or, if you’re not sure where to begin sourcing a peat-free alternative, Nathan recommends going to your local garden center.

  • 07 of 08

    Avoid the ‘Fast Fashion’ Version of Houseplants

    person shopping for houseplants in the supermarket

    Oscar Wong / Getty Images

    Along with selecting the right compost, “choose to buy plants from companies that are doing their best for the planet,” advised Nathan. “Although more expensive, it’s the right thing to do.” 

    This likely means that you should also “avoid buying cheap plants from supermarkets. We need to get out of this 'Throw Away', 'Fast Fashion' approach. When you buy a houseplant it should last for life, be passed through generations, gifted/swapped with friends. Often supermarket plants are mass-produced. They're susceptible to pests and diseases and they have younger root systems, so they're more likely to die during transport or once taken home.”

  • 08 of 08

    Other Composts Materials to Avoid

    Closeup of sphagnum moss

    The Spruce / Phoebe Cheong

    Peat moss isn’t the only contributor to the problem, warned Emma. “Sphagnum moss is also a naturally occurring product [found in compost], and it’s difficult to know whether a product is sustainably sourced or not. We tried asking one company once and got a nicely vague reply!  Therefore, unless you need to use sphagnum for mounting a rare orchid on bark, I would suggest there are alternatives to this, too.”

“There are loads of composts you can buy from local garden centers that are peat-free but often a little bit more expensive,” said Nathan. “But they are worth it, and we should all be held responsible for our carbon footprint.”

Article Sources
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  1. Phylloremediation of Air Pollutants: Exploiting the Potential of Plant Leaves and Leaf-Associated Microbes, Frontiers in Plant Science

  2. Health and well-being benefits of plants, Texas A&M University, Ellison Chair in International Floriculture

  3. 3 Percent for the Planet, Michigan Tech Magazines

  4. Peatlands and Climate Change, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

  5. Peatlands store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

  6. Peatlands and Climate Change, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

  7. Natural Solutions to Climate Change: Peatlands, The Wildlife Trust