Bog Off! Why Is Peat Still Being Sold In Garden Composts?

A natural peatland in the North Yorkshire Dales, UK. Much of the UK’s peat is imported from Europe and Ireland. (Image Credit: Charlie Woodrow, CC by 2.0)

The COVID pandemic has disrupted all aspects of our lives, and forced many to pick up new hobbies to stay happy and occupied. Among these new hobbies is gardening, with stores across the UK seeing increasing demand for potted plants and horticultural products. But while gardening may seem like an eco-friendly past time, many of the products sold for home-use have multiple direct and indirect negative environmental effects, and among the worst of these is peat-rich composts. But what is peat? And why should you avoid gardening products that contain it?

Peat is an accretion of partially decayed plants (often grasses or mosses) and other organic material into a dense, carbon-rich substrate. It forms the basis of many unique environments such as bogs, fens, and swamp forests. Despite covering only ~3% of the land’s surface, peat stores a third of the entire planet’s soil carbon. Its nutrient rich and water retaining properties make it a cheap way to enhance the life of garden plants, as well as an effective fossil fuel. Scotland contains 60% of the UK’s peatland, and nationwide, it is estimated only 20% is undamaged.

The main problem with the use of peat in agriculture is that its natural accumulation is slow, at only around 1 mm per year, and consequently it is being removed from its natural position at a rate that makes sustainable peat farming an impossibility, removing an important carbon sink. Unfortunately for gardeners, this means even the smallest peat content in shop-bought soils is causing great damage to the unique habitats that peat helps to form.

Scotland is working hard to protect its peatlands (Image Credit: Lorne Gill/Scottish Natural Heritage).

Peat and the Pandemic

With peat being such an important carbon sink and habitat resource, shouldn’t its sale be prevented? Here in the UK, the government agreed to a voluntary phase-out of peat in 2011, with aims of complete removal from stores by 2020 and the end of professional peat use by 2030. Yet garden centres, supermarkets and online retailers are still offering peat-rich compost products, and the COVID pandemic has contributed to the problem.

Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that ~ 2/3 of the peat used in UK gardens was by amateur gardeners, in the form of multi-purpose composts. Now, with on/off lockdowns disrupting our usual hobbies, over 3 million further Brits have taken to amateur gardening as a new hobby to escape from the surreal times we live in. With the prospect of spending long needed time with friends and family in gardens as lockdown measures continue to ease across the UK, many stores are seeing huge surges in demand for plants and other products.

To assess what kind of products are available for these millions of new garden enthusiasts, I headed out to garden stores near me, to check peat contents and relative prices of various composts.

The Undercover Garden Store Report

I visited five nearby garden stores, and two online alternatives, to assess how much peat was being sold in composts, and their relative costs to the consumer. Predictably, most products contained peat, with only seven out of 25 different products being fully peat-free. Among the peat-filled composts, the average peat content was 54%. By far the worst offenders were Westland Horticulture’s products, with one multi-purpose product containing 90% peat! It was no surprise that my attempts to communicate my concerns to their customer service team were met with a blank response.

Peat content across 25 different compost brands in UK stores. Most products contained at least 45% peat. (Image Credit: Charlie Woodrow, CC by 2.0)

Fortunately however, all stores provided peat-free alternatives. For the customer, buying peat-free when available should be a no-brainer, with an average additional cost of only 3p per litre of compost! To any gardeners to make individual changes to help slow the rate of climate change and habitat loss, I emphasise that this is a very simple way to start.

Recently, support for peat-free products in the UK has picked up lots of positive attention from the public and media, with many professionals voicing their concerns to George Eustice (the UK’s environment secretary) in the form of a letter promoting ‘peat-free April’. It is the hope of many that the use of peat receives faster and tougher legislation in the UK, particularly given that we are hosting the COP26 climate conference in November. Over 10 million tonnes of CO2 is released into the atmosphere per year from damaged UK peatlands, and it would be great to see the UK government become a proud leader of sustainable practices. Sadly, effective decision making (particularly in regards to the climate crisis) does not seem to be Johnson et al.’s forte.

There Is Still So Mulch To Do

Generally, there are many ways we need to improve the sustainability of our garden practices, both for our own health and that of wildlife. With plastic turfs, chemical weed killers, fake plants becoming the norm (I guess we could call this ‘the Love Island villa effect’), when will the cost of such aesthetics be addressed?

A Look to the Future

In the final stages of developing this article, a very coincidentally timed announcement from the UK government was plastered all over tabloids and internet press about a change to legislation of peat-rich garden products. There will now be a ban on such products for individual use by 2025. With the initial phase out starting in 2011, and still no signs of a ban for industrial use of peat, this welcomed change may just be too little too late.

Charlie Woodrow is a PhD student at the University of Lincoln, UK. He is interested in the evolution of animal communication and ecology, and is currently researching the morphological and functional variation in katydid ears. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieZoology.

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