Government targets fail to reduce peat use

The amount of peat-free growing media and soil improvers on the market is increasing. But due to increasing demand in particular for growing media by amateur gardeners, the amount of peat being used has not changed significantly since 1999.

Peat use has remained static at 3.4 million cubic metres a year despite a government target that 40% of soil conditioners and growing media would be met by peat-free alternatives by 2005, rising to 90% by 2010, a government survey has found.1Although the first target has now been comfortably met with peat-free alternatives accounting for 47% of the market in 2005, the target is misleading as there has been no reduction in the total amount of peat being used (see table).

Demand for alternatives has grown by 32% since 2001. Bark made up 56% of the total alternative materials, green compost 22% and woodchip 5%, with smaller amounts of other materials such as coir-fibre dust, spent mushroom compost, loam and cocoa shell.

But the growth in peat-free alternatives is in effect just buffering an overall increase in demand for growing media and soil improvers, which is rising by 0.2 million m3 per year.

In the report by ADAS UK and Enviros Consulting for the government, the authors urge a review of targets if they are "to provide appropriate protection towards sustainable development for peatlands." It says that the rate of change "needs to be accelerated" if targets for 2010 are to be met.

Lowland raised peatbogs are one of Europe’s rarest and most vulnerable habitats. Environment groups have long called for an end to peat extraction. If left unchecked continued extraction could lead to the removal of 17 million m3 of peat by 2010, the report warns.

The survey found that while soil improvers are largely peat-free, peat still accounts for 82% of the growing media market by volume.

And despite commitments from some retailers to reduce the amount of peat in their products (ENDS Report 352, p 33 ), availability is still sustaining the market.

Amateur gardeners are the biggest users of peat, accounting for two thirds of the market, followed by professional growers who consume the remaining third of peat-based products.

Amateur gardening practices in particular need to be changed, the report says. It also recommends focusing effort to "increasing confidence of growers in non-peat products" as well as addressing storage and performance issues.

Dr Olly Watts, RSPB environmental policy officer, said there was "frustration" that further progress had not been made and pointed to problems in obtaining an adequate supply of non-peat materials, but said momentum was "starting to build."

Garden products firm Westland’s recently invested in a new process for its Northern Ireland plant which makes a peat alternative from spun wood fibre sourced from by-products from spruce forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The company said it would lead to a "significant increase in volume." Dr Watts said the performance of the product was "very promising."

He also highlighted the work of a group chaired by the Horticultural Trade Association with representatives from the Growing Media Association, B&Q, Focus DIY, Homebase, RHS, and RSPB.

Tim Briercliffe, business development director for the HTA, said the group hoped to develop a mechanism to speed up the process of peat reduction, which it hopes to launch later this year.

"The WWF Global Forest and Trade Network offers a useful model which could be used to tackle this issue," said Mr Briercliffe. "The challenge for all interested parties is to build up a scheme relevant to our industry which can deliver effective peat reduction."

The GMA said it had decided to engage with retailers and other interested parties in the absence of leadership from the Environment Department (DEFRA). It hoped a new scheme "will help re-engage DEFRA on this issue."