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Comparative life cycle assessment (LCA): the footprint of your favorite houseplant

A comparative LCA can help you make a wide variety of choices. In this comparative LCA we consider the different LCA stages for a natural plant compared to an artificial plant. Which plant is greener?

We conducted a comparative life cycle assessment (LCA) of a real and artificial Monstera Deliciosa plant. Both are often seen in Dutch households. We did this by looking at different LCA stages.

(Green) Monstera Deliciosa plant

A comparative LCA can help you make a wide variety of choices. Are you for example looking to bring more green into your home? Then a Monstera Deliciosa might be something for you. This plant, also known as the Swiss cheese plant because of the characteristic holes in the leaves, is incredibly popular. This is because of its striking appearance and easy care. If you don't have a green thumb, the plastic version might be your perfect match. But what if you're concerned about the environmental impact of your plant choice? 

Environmental impact of an artificial and a fake houseplant

To compare real and artificial plants' environmental effects, different LCA stages are considered. Stages such as production, packaging, transport, pot and soil usage, and product lifespan are evaluated. Waste generated by the use of the plant (like throwing away the plastic pot the plant is shipped in) and the amount of material and energy required are also included in this study. 

In this comparative LCA, the described scenarios were compared to each other using 16 impact categories as indicated in the Environmental Footprint method (EF). For more information on LCA, check out our Beginners guide.

Artificial Monstera vs real Monstera 

The real Monstera plant is grown in a heated greenhouse, where the temperature is maintained between 21 and 28 degrees Celsius. The plant can be grown from a seed that must come from, for example, Central America. First, the seed is grown, and then the Monstera grows for at least 1 year to reach about 90 cm length. The Monstera can then be bought directly from the grower in a plastic cultivation pot.

Lifespan of the plants

At your home, the Monstera is placed in a ceramic pot (with holes), and the plastic pot is discarded. Indoor plants typically live for an average of three to five years. In this scenario, it is assumed that the plant is well cared for and thus lives for five years. The use phase in this scenario consists of discarding the plastic pot, replacing it with a ceramic pot, soil, and water. The lifespan of the ceramic pot is estimated at 50 years.

The artificial Monstera is made in China and consists of various types of plastic. Furthermore, concrete for weight, and steel wire are used. It is ninety cm tall and weighs about 1.8 kilograms. The plant is sold at a store in the Netherlands and upon arrival, the plant, including its plastic pot, is placed in a decorative pot or basket. The lifespan can be as long as the owner likes the plant in his/her household.

It's difficult to say how long this will be, or what will typically happen to the plant when the owner decides to get rid of it. It turns out that people tend to keep the same interior design for about 5 to 10 years. Therefore, the lifespan of the artificial Monstera is estimated at 10 years, after which we assume the owner wants a different plant.

Results: plastic plants are bad for global warming

So which plant scores worse? If you consider a use phase of 5 years, it is the plastic monstera. The graph below shows the results for CO2. The plastic plant has an impact which is almost twice as bad as its natural look-a-like.

Figure 1: Absolute impact of entire life cycle of the monstera and the artificial plant in kg CO2-eq of 5 years of use.

However, there are other environmental impacts to take into account. If you compare the results of this LCA example, you can see that for some impact categories (e.g. Ozone depletion and water use) the Monstera plant has a higher impact than the artificial Monstera plant. In our scenario, we assume that the artificial plant is discarded after 5 years, but in reality, it can easily last for 10 years. And whenever you stopped liking your plant , it's better to bring it to a thrift store or give it to someone else. So the total lifespan is extended.


Figure 2: Impact of using both plants for 5 years. 

In general, it is a good thing to expand the lifespan, both of the natural and the plastic variation of the Monstera. To demonstrate this, we also examined the lifecycle if you manage to keep a Monstera plant alive for more than five years. We only compared the amount of CO2 equivalent in this case. You can see that a real plant doesn't have much additional impact after production and transportation. The same is seen with the artificial Monstera plant, if you use it for a longer period; the amount of CO2 per year of use will decrease. Therefore, it's better to use both plants, real or artificial, for a longer period.

Figure 2: Change in CO2 emissions per year of use.

LCA calculations of the real Monstera

The real Monstera is grown from a seed from South America. In the figure below, it is clear that for a real Monstera, transportation is the biggest impact on almost every impact category. Therefore, we can conclude that more sustainable transportation (E.G shipping in comparison to flying)  will decrease the impact.

As a response, we have developed a scenario where Monstera plants are not grown from seeds but from cuttings, of one or more generations of Monstera. The effect is shown in the amount of CO2-equivalent that would be emitted. Just one time of cutting already results in a much lower CO2 emission, because fewer flying kilometres are needed.

Figure 4: Decrease in CO2 emissions per plant by using cuttings.

Furthermore, you can examine the usage phase of the Monstera, where plant owners could have an impact with the choices they make. In the figure below, you can see that the biggest impact in the usage phase is caused by throwing away the cultivation pot and using a ceramic decorative pot. 

It applies that the longer you use the cultivation pot or decorative pot, the lower the ultimate annual impact will be. You can reuse cultivation pots at home for other plants, or use them as aids for drainage in your decorative pot. In some cases, you can also return the cultivation pot to a garden centre or nursery. These are all options to increase the lifespan of a plastic cultivation pot. Additionally, you can consider using a different type of decorative pot that serves the same purpose and lasts just as long, such as recycled plastic. 

Figure 5: Contribution of the use phase of a real monstera, in kg CO2-eq.

LCA calculations of the artificial monstera

Regarding the artificial Monstera plants, we see that the production phase of the artificial plant leads to the most significant share on the product's environmental impact. The PEVA has the most significant impact. PEVA is a type of plastic often used in the production of artificial plants. To reduce the impact, one could consider using another type of plastic with a lower environmental impact. However, PEVA is already an eco-friendlier alternative to, for example PVC.

Some artificial plants use silk or other textiles to mimic plants. The environmental impact of these alternatives has not been compared in this LCA example.

Figure 6: Contribution of each LCA stage of artificial monstera. 


From this comparative life cycle assessment, we can learn that it is important to realise that the impact of a product is not solely determined by the production methods. The way it is used and ultimately discarded is also crucial. If you buy a real plant but neglect it, and you have to throw it away after a few months, the impact of this behaviour may be greater than that of owning a well-maintained artificial plant. An artificial plant can easily last for ten or even twenty years.

Overall, it is important to consider not only the direct impact but also the indirect impact caused by factors such as transportation, usage, and waste disposal when making product choices. This way, you can make an informed decision by taking into consideration all the factors involved.And buy a plant that is not just “good looking” for your interior, but also for the environment.

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