Peat use by amateur gardeners and professional growers has declined significantly for the first time, according to a survey for the Environment Department (DEFRA).1 It now accounts for less than 50% of the volume of growing media and soil improvers sold in the UK.
The survey, held every two years, is designed to track progress towards the government’s target under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan to cut peat use to just 10% of the market by 2010. Consultants ADAS and Enviros carried out the survey. They collected 2007 data from manufacturers on the use of peat and alternatives such as composted bark, waste wood and green waste.
This is the first significant fall in peat use since records began in 1999. Between 1999 and 2005 peat use was reasonably static although the proportion used in products declined as the use of alternatives and size of the market grew (see figure).
Most peat (98%) was used in growing media. Although the decline in use appears to have accelerated slightly since 2005, the report warns that "the rate of change needs to be increased further" if the 2010 target of 10% is to be met.
Between 1999 and 2005, the rate of peat substitution was 1.9% per year. This rose to 3.8% per year after 2005. But the report notes that this must rise to 11.9% per year to meet the 2010 target.
The target and the Biodiversity Action Plan form part of the International Convention on Biodiversity and the UK’s response to the sustainable development goals of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
Peat extraction has clear biodiversity implications, but it also adds to fossil carbon emissions. Extraction may permanently damage peat bogs which are an important carbon sink. Carbon in the peat itself is also slowly emitted as the product decays in use.
More than half (54%) of the peat used in the UK is imported from the Irish Republic while 43% is home produced. The rest comes from continental sources such as the Baltic states.
Last year, Natural England estimated 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 could be lost from the UK’s peat bogs as a result of extraction, burning, drainage and over-grazing. In pristine condition they would absorb 150,000 tonnes of CO2 a year (ENDS Report 397, p 4 ).
If the peat reduction target is to be met, the biggest change is needed in the amateur gardening sector, which accounts for 69% of peat use. The volume used fell by 8.7% from 2.28 million cubic metres in 2005 to 2.08 million m3 in 2007. Most of this was used in products such as multipurpose compost and grow bags.
Industry and government efforts to reduce peat use now focus on the Growing Media Initiative (GMI) which was launched in November 2008.2 The scheme is being led by the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) and is supported by the Growing Media Association, the Environment Department (DEFRA), the RSPB and the Royal Horticultural Society.
Membership is open to retailers and makers of growing media. To join, organisations must prepare an action plan to further peat reduction and calculate the proportion of peat in their products. Members include retailers such as B&Q, Homebase and Dobbies, and growing media suppliers Westland and Scotts.
B&Q technical manager Ian Howell said the company has now substituted 53% of the peat it sells in products and that the trend will continue. "Participation in the GMI has helped B&Q and its suppliers formulate a joint action plan to drive further reductions in the peat content of peat-based growing media whilst maintaining quality and value for the consumer," the company said in a statement. It plans to offer customers more choice of peat-free alternatives and is adamant they will not pay more.
Peat use fell by 19% in the horticultural sector between 2005 and 2007 to 0.92 million m3. Tim Briercliffe, chairman of the GMI and director of business development at the HTA said most of the reduction had been achieved by reducing peat levels in growing media incrementally. "You can’t jump to alternatives, the alternatives are not there and there are technical issues. It has to develop gradually," he said.
Growers favour peat because it is cheap, consistent and produces reliable results, Mr Briercliffe explained. A few large retailers have responded to NGO pressure and asked growers to reduce peat use, but growers could do more if customers would pay a premium for alternatives. But as well as being more expensive, these alternatives are less readily available and heavier to transport.
Mr Briercliffe praised growers’ efforts but noted: "It’s a generally held view that the 2010 target can’t be met. Most of the products for sale in 2010 have already been harvested and had the bags made for them."