Eco Etiquette: What's The Environmental Cost Of Cut Flowers?

Eco Etiquette: What's The Environmental Cost Of Cut Flowers?
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Are cut flowers really bad for the environment? My wife loves them, and I know she's probably expecting a bunch this Valentine's Day.


Selfishly, I don't want to write this article, because I fear if I veto one more of my husband's romantic gestures for not being "eco" enough, he'll give up on me forever.

First, I banned the trails of cards we used to leave each other on anniversaries. (Why should we kill trees to say I love you?) Then went the chocolates, nestled in layers of crinkly plastic and boxed up with a polyester bow. (Only fair trade and in recyclable packaging, please!) Even wine that was bottled with a plastic stopper had to go by the wayside. (Can you try to find bottles with a natural cork, babe?)

I seriously want to punch myself in the face just reading this. The man is a saint.

So when he surprised me last week with a bunch of magnificent calla lilies, I of course didn't have the heart to tell him what I'm about to tell you: Conventional cut flowers are just about the least natural thing you can get your sweetie this Valentine's Day.

I know, it's hard to believe: Flowers are so beautiful, so organic looking -- in the truest sense of that word. How could they possibly be bad for the planet?

To answer that question, let's take a look at the lifecycle of your run-of-the mill supermarket red roses, which most likely began their journey in a production greenhouse in South America. Seventy-eight percent of cut flowers in the US are imported from countries like Ecuador and Colombia, where warm weather makes for ideal year-round growing conditions.

The rest of the growing conditions, however, are less than optimal, at least where the environment and workers' rights are concerned. Output is key, since US demand is so high (particularly on holidays like Valentine's Day, which will see the sale of 200 million stems of roses alone), so flowers are doused with a toxic cocktail of fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides to keep disease and vermin at bay.

Twenty percent of those chemicals are so dangerous they're actually restricted in the US or Europe, according to a 2007 study by the now named International Labor Rights Forum. That's especially unfortunate for the unprotected workers (mostly women, sometimes children) who are suffering everything from respiratory distress to higher rates of miscarriage to neurological impairment as a result of exposure.

Might want to rethink that rose petal bath, huh?

Once the roses are harvested, they're stored in an energy-eating chilled warehouse, transported to the airport in a gas-guzzling refrigerated truck, flown via cargo plane to the US (sorry, no refrigerated airplanes, but I think the carbon emissions from flying are pollution enough), and then shipped yet again via refrigerated truck to their destination -- in this case, the supermarket.

There, they wait in -- you guessed it! -- a refrigerated display case, until someone snaps up a dozen to take home and surprise his honey. But the journey doesn't end there: Once the flowers fade in a week or so, they're tossed in the trash (unless you compost) and sent to the landfill, where they decay and emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Factor in the not-easily-recyclable cellophane floral wrap, those little plastic water tubes that get capped on the flower stems, plus an add-on polyester Teddy bear and mylar balloon filled with helium (a precious gas that the world is running out of, by the way), and you've got yourself a veritable Valentine's Day eco-disaster. (Am I the V-Day grinch, or what?!)

If you still have your heart set on fresh flowers, you don't have to forgo them entirely, though. Seeking out blooms that are certified either USDA organic or sustainably grown by the third-party Veriflora program will go a long way toward reducing your pesticide petalprint. Buying in-season flowers from a local grower (you can find one on LocalHarvest) is another eco option that can help support native bee populations threatened by colony collapse disorder.

But if you want to impress your Valentine with your romantic as well as environmental prowess, I say ditch the cheap carnations and try this sustainably suave suggestion: Give her a package of rare heirloom flower seeds along with a beautiful vintage flowerpot. Then tell her you want to plant them with her this Valentine's Day and watch the flowers grow along with your love.

Happy V-Day!

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