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Are Houseplants Harming the Planet? The Environmental Impact of Peat

Is your houseplant obsession harming the planet? Here's what to know about the environmental impact of peat, and peat-free alternatives.

Written by
Morgan Cook

Did you enter into plant parenthood recently? If so, you're definitely not alone. Whether it was gardening or turning your home into your own personal greenhouse, developing a green thumb seemed to be the hobby of 2020. And we get it: Plants help absorb toxins from the air, produce oxygen, and can even boost your mood, so why wouldn't you want as many as possible?

Well, there may be one reason many new (and even seasoned) plant parents don’t realize: peat. Aka what most houseplants are grown in. It's made up of partially decomposed organic matter, and unfortunately our overwhelming demand for Insta-worthy plant displays is depleting the world's supply of peat quicker than it can be replenished.

Continue reading below to learn more about this plant-nourishing substance, the environmental impact of peat, and how you can help preserve it. You know, for peat's sake.

What Is Peat, and Why Is It Used to Grow Plants?

When it comes to peat, it's important to note there are a couple types. There's "peat moss" and just regular old "peat."

“Over thousands of years, plant materials submerged under water in bogs have broken down to form a type of soil called 'peat,'” said Leonard Perry, PhD, former extension horticulture specialist at the University of Vermont, in a statement. “Most common is peat from the sphagnum moss plant. Don't confuse the peat from dead plants with the actual sphagnum moss from living plants. Sphagnum moss often is seen as a liner for hanging baskets. This moss grows on top of such wetlands, and is harvested first, then the peat below.”

In short, peat is a soil-like substance and peat moss is, well, moss. Both form in bogs—a type of wetland that's very acidic. The acidity prevents vegetation from fully decaying, leaving you with partially-decayed organic matter, which over time becomes peat. It then gets harvested by removing layers of the bog’s surface to reach the partially decomposed matter beneath it.

Doesn’t sound all that appealing, right? Well, to plants it is. Peat (or peat moss) is sought after in the planting community because it’s sterile and has the ability to retain moisture and oxygen without becoming bogged down (pun intended). This results in potting mixes that are better able to hold water and air. It's also inexpensive to produce and transport—an important factor for many nurseries.

The Environmental Impact of Peat

While peat may be great for plants, harvesting it isn't so great for the earth. The environmental impact of peat is something to consider before your next greenhouse visit.

The wetlands that give us peat store a lot of carbon. In fact, they’re responsible for storing a third of the world’s soil carbon. That means that when we harvest peat, we’re not only eliminating a source of carbon storage, but also releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

But doesn’t it regrow? Won’t it just be able to restore that carbon eventually? Not quite. While peat does regenerate, it doesn’t do so quickly. Peat only forms at a rate of 1mm per year. Bamboo, in comparison, can grow up to three feet a day

Considering how fast we're buying houseplants these days, things aren't looking good for peat. However, the good news is the reason we're utilizing so much peat is simply because people don't know it's problematic. "Demand is not there yet because customers don't know the difference," Harriet Thompson, a peat-free plant shop owner, told The Telegraph. But like most things, if consumers demand peat-free alternatives it will come.

What Are Peat Alternatives?

Unfortunately, as one of the UK's only peat-free commercial houseplant growers, Thompson is a bit of an anomaly. There aren't many peat-free plant shops out there, which leaves us with two realistic options: First, write to plant shop owners and ask if they have peat-free options available. Even if they don't, this will signal to them that there's a demand, leading them to look into peat-free options.

Second, use a peat-free potting mix when repotting your plants, like this Eco-co Coir Potting Mix ($7). It's made from coconut husks and has an excellent water-holding capacity, all while still having the ability to drain well. Another alternative is PittMoss, a peat-free plant growing substrate with no toxic components and reduced reliance on surfactants, fertilizers, and other chemical additives.

Going peat-free isn't easy... yet. But raising awareness by using alternatives when you can—or even sharing this article with your houseplant-obsessed friend—can help create the demand needed to make peat-free plants the next buzzed-about craze.