We’re plant people and we love to learn new things about the plant world when we can. And one thing on our minds right now is sustainability in the plant industry. We were wondering how to sustainably buy houseplants and if it can truly be done. Think about it, plants grow in greenhouses dotted around the country and then they are shipped and transported all over the place. When you dig a little deeper and think about these things, it’s hard not to worry about the harm we might be doing to the environment. Thankfully though, there are a lot of ways we can offset these things. You can definitely make eco-friendly choices when buying houseplants and we spoke to some experts on the topic to tell you how.
Meet the Expert
Do some research before you buy.
“Energy use is one of the most obvious factors when it comes to how sustainable your houseplant is," says Hancock. "You can check the website of grower or reach out to them to ask about how they handle heating/cooling. Some growers may offset their energy use by taking advantage of renewable sources.” For example, notes Hancock, Costa Farms offsets its carbon footprint with solar panels. "Water use is another area to consider. Some growers recycle their irrigation water to reduce water use,” says Hancock.
The best way to know if you’re buying sustainability is to ask questions. You’ll need to do some research to determine if your values align with a grower you’re interested in purchasing from. If it all checks out, buy away!
Be aware of plastic use.
Plastic is a problem in pretty much every industry, and plants are no exception—most plants you buy will come in a plastic nursery pot. However, growers are making some changes and trying to find alternatives, and some are even accepting plastic pots from buyers to reuse. "While most growers use plastic nursery pots to grow their plants in, many are actively looking at compostable alternatives," says Hancock. "I personally hope it’s a short time until we as an industry have found a solution that holds up well enough for us to grow our plants in without starting to degrade, get moldy, etc." Though hopeful, Hancock notes that slow-growing crops that take several years to grow larger enough to be sold at a retail location will be a major challenge to switching to compostable alternatives.
Be sure to check with your local nursery to see what their policies are. “Some growers, for example, will pick up used nursery pots, trays, etc. from the stores they service and take those products back for recycling. Other growers may not buy plastic pots at all, but instead re-use pots," explains Hancock. "For example, I’ve seen a number of cases where a consumer buys a plant, has an issue, and reaches out to Costa Farms about it for the Costa team to discover that it wasn’t a plant they grew, but rather a local grower re-used a Costa pot!"
Figure out what’s really going into your potting mix.
Did you know that peat, which is used in a lot of potting mixes for drainage purposes, is actually one of earth’s most valuable natural resources? “Peat’s value … relies on humans leaving it where it is—in the bogs where it was formed. Its role as a carbon store is what makes it so crucial to our future," explains Davies. Healthy, wet peatlands have a cooling effect on the climate, as it works like carbon storage. Damaged peatlands account for 5 percent of global CO2 emissions.
That’s why his company, For Peat’s Sake, uses coconut coir instead. It’s a renewable resource and can be harvested every 45 days, whereas peat can take several hundred years to grow in bogs. There are also a number of other soil substrates you can use that won't cause harm.
Location, Location, Location.
At the end of the day, if you’re going to buy a plant, you can always choose the more local option. There are nurseries and growers all around the country. Doing this will offset some of the things that may make buying houseplants sustainably, impossible. “For example, growers (like Costa Farms) in South Florida grow outdoors in shade houses so they don’t need to artificially heat or cool their plants, so they use less energy to grow their plants than a grower in the North," notes Hancock. "But if you’re a consumer in the North, even though your local greenhouse has to run a lot of heat (especially in winter) to grow warm-loving tropical plants, they don’t have the transportation emissions of trucking the plants from South Florida to your area. As a consumer, you may need to ask yourself what aspects of sustainability are most important to you."
Soulliere-Chieppo, Marie. Plastic Pots and the Green Industry. Association of Professional Landscape Designers, 2020.
Peatlands and Climate Change. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Plant and Plant Product Permits: Plants for Planting FAQs. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture.