Green groups & Monty Don urge government to end peat compost

Over two million cubic metres sold or used in UK last year
  Published:  25 Nov 2020    |      6 minute read

Environmental charities have been joined by broadcaster and writer Monty Don in writing an open letter to the government calling for a ban on peat in garden compost in the next five years after new figures showed it would take decades to phase out at the current rate.(1)

The National Trust, Friends of the Earth, The Royal Horticultural Society, Plantlife, CPRE, the countryside charity, The Wildlife Trusts and Wildlife and Countryside Link say that unless a legal ban is introduced then some of the world’s most precious and important ecosystems could be lost forever, and the government’s climate and nature aims will be undermined.

Monty Don has added his voice to the plight, describing the continued use of peat in compost as “environmental vandalism”.

Peatlands act as carbon sinks, trapping in carbon to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. They also help to control flooding and encourage vegetation that can provide homes for an array of wildlife.

However, new figures released in recent weeks show the rate of decrease in the retail and professional horticulture sectors is “small and slow”.

They also show that a voluntary target to end its use in the amateur sector by 2020 has been completely missed, and that 2030 target to end its use in the professional sector is also on course to be missed.

In the retail sector, peat is down from 53.3 per cent of material in 2015 to 44.6 per cent last year. In the professional sector peat is down from 63.9 per cent of material in 2015 to 62.9 per cent last year.(2)

The majority of the two million cubic metres sold or used in the UK in 2019 was imported from the Republic of Ireland and other EU countries, with the remainder coming from peatlands in the UK.

In their open letter to Environment Secretary George Eustice today, the group is calling for a total ban on peat in compost - on its extraction within the UK, its import, export, and sale - in both the retail and professional sectors, by 2025 at the latest.

The charities say “allowing peat use to continue rewards failure and undermines the Prime Minister’s commitment … to lead the way on climate change and to tackle the loss of biodiversity.”

The letter adds: “We cannot lose another ten years to these approaches while we continue to import peat from habitats on the continent, contributing to the UK’s overseas environmental footprint - which your Government has committed to tackling.”

The end of peat in compost could be achieved through the forthcoming England Peat Strategy by - either using it to introduce a ban, or to consult on how this should be done as quickly as possible. The long-awaited Strategy was first mentioned in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan almost three years ago, and peat has continued to be extracted and turned into compost ever since then.

Monty Don, gardener and presenter, said:

“There is no garden, however beautiful, that justifies the scale of environmental damage or contribution to climate change that peat use causes. The extraction of peat for horticultural use is an act of environmental vandalism. It causes irreparable environmental damage. The fact that it also significantly contributes to the release of CO2 and aggravates the effects of climate change adds salt to a grievous wound. Ten years ago the government announced the intention to halt all retail peat by 2020 and all horticultural peat use by 2030. However, the retail sector and horticultural trade have fallen grievously short of those modest targets. The time has come for the government and parliament to impose a total ban on all peat production and sales. It is time for all the various elements of the horticultural trade to come together to provide and promote the existing alternative growing media for both amateur and professional use.”

Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology for the National Trust, said:

“The Government is proudly publicising the fact that it is hosting the UN climate conference next year, and has ambitions to be a champion of nature on the world stage. The Prime Minister is promising new funding for nature and warning of the dire consequences of biodiversity loss. Yet the Government is allowing the import of peat compost to continue. This is causing destruction to peatlands on our doorstep and in other countries too. For years the National Trust has shown that it’s possible to go peat-free in our garden centres, nurseries and gardens.”

“As the Government seeks to do more to address our ‘environmental footprint’ abroad by tackling illegal logging, banning the use of peat compost by 2025 would make as much sense as ending the use of illegal timber. The Government promised to look at this issue in its 25 Year Environment Plan - we are already three years into that Plan and the clock is ticking. The forthcoming England Peat Strategy must set out a clear path to the end of peat compost in the UK by 2025 at the latest.”

Paul de Zylva, Nature Campaigner, Friends of the Earth, said:

“It is extraordinary that the government is allowing peat use to undermine its ability to act on climate change and restore nature. The gardening sector has had a decade to end peat use and to start giving its customers genuine choice to buy truly peat-free composts. An outright ban or a levy on its sale could be the only ways to stop garden centres and DIY stores profiting from the sale of this natural asset at rock bottom prices.”

Restoring the nation’s peatlands is also a necessary and affordable way of tackling climate change – they store more carbon than the nation’s forests.

Blanket and raised bog peatlands cover around 23,000 km2 or 9.5 per cent of the UK land area, storing at least 3 billion tonnes of carbon (3). This is equivalent to just under 10 years’ worth of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Other advantages to peatlands include providing more than 25 per cent of the UK’s drinking water and controlling flooding by absorbing heavy rainfalls and releasing water more slowly.

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO, Wildlife & Countryside Link, said:

“A garden can be a private oasis for the owner, but it can be so much more - it can be part of a Nature Recovery Network. But today there are still too many throwaway and harmful aspects of horticulture, from pesticide use to single-use plastic and peat in compost that mean the industry is harming the natural world.

“Government action to encourage sustainable growing media like coir, green compost, composted pine bark and wood fibre, and a ban on unsustainable peat use, can help gardeners and the horticulture industry to help sustain nature and be part of its recovery.”

Prof. Alistair Griffiths, Director of Science & Collections at the Royal Horticultural Society, said:

“In order to facilitate a transition away from the use of peat, greater investment will be needed in research and development, the processing of household compostable waste, and in sustainably mobilising existing alternatives to the use of peat, as well as reducing waste in the supply chain. More investment is required in the UK horticultural industry infrastructure, in paludiculture and in the planting of more trees which can provide the largest peat alternative raw material ‘wood fibre’. There is also a need to review the impacts of subsidies and competition for wood price with biomass energy plants and to help make the alternative wood fibre ‘raw material’ more available and affordable for growing media manufacturers.”

Crispin Truman, Chief Executive, CPRE The Countryside Charity, said:

‘We’re robbing peat to pay Paul when we degrade our peatlands to create healthier habitats in our gardens.

‘The use of peat in the horticultural industry – mainly for garden compost and potting plants – has declined at a snail’s pace. So far the government’s efforts to phase it out, though well-intentioned, are clearly failing: peat still makes up almost half of all compost sold. Locking up over three billion tonnes of carbon, the UK’s peatlands are slumbering giants when it comes to the climate emergency. But, through peat extraction, poor management and intensive use, peatlands are leaking carbon instead of storing it. Equally, importing peat from other countries is not a solution given we’re trying to bring down global emissions.

‘With the UK bidding to lead on climate change in advance of us hosting a global climate change conference next year, and real momentum behind a green recovery, now is the time for decisive action on peat. We need a rapid shift to ‘go peat-free in our gardens’ with a government action plan and a hard deadline to make it happen.’

Nikki Williams, Director of Campaigning & Policy at The Wildlife Trusts said:

“When the voluntary targets were set nearly a decade ago we didn’t appreciate the scale of the pressures facing our climate and the impact that our activities are having on wildlife at home and abroad. With support, the horticultural sector can become one which champions nature’s recovery, by quickly phasing out peat use and giving gardeners confidence that the products they are taking home to nurture their own green spaces are not destroying wild habitat elsewhere. Peat has for too long been presented as a plentiful and perfect product in which to grow plants, but if gardeners could see the destruction that peat extraction has caused to habitats around the globe, they would be truly horrified.”

Jenny Hawley, Policy Manager at Plantlife, said:

“The commercial extraction of peat can, in a single year, destroy irreplaceable wildlife habitat that has taken over half a millennia to create. It also releases vast amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere and is the essence of unsustainable activity resulting in man-made climate change.

“The voluntary approach taken by Government and industry has been glacial in delivering the necessary peat-free alternatives for the consumer. It is time for legislative action; government must ban the use of peat in compost by 2025. Such a ban will be a simple and effective step in the battle to tackle the climate emergency and deliver a brighter future for peatlands’ unique biodiversity, including Cuckooflower, Marsh violet, Bog asphodel, Common butterwort, Marsh cinquefoil and Marsh willowherb.”