Peatlands and peat-based substrates: News and alternatives on the horizon.

The ban on the use of peat substrates for domestic use is a reality, but it is not the only measure on the horizon. Measures for peatland restoration go further and you will find it useful to know what the next steps are. What are the latest developments and sustainable alternatives? We review them in this article, so read on!

Horticultural use of peat substrate for gardening was banned this year 2024 in the UK.
Horticultural use of peat substrate for gardening was banned this year 2024 in the UK.

What are peatlands and peat?

Peatlands are wetlands where a highly valued natural resource is found: peat.

 

Peatlands are an iconic feature of the English landscape – often referred to as ‘our national rainforest’. They contain over half of the country’s terrestrial carbon stores and it’s a unique ecosystem.

 

The peat from these wetlands is used for energy production as well as for horticultural and agricultural purposes. To obtain peat, the ecosystem is disturbed by removing the surface of the soil. The different layers of peat are then collected. The peat is classified according to their age, colour, and percentage of organic matter and divided into 3 main categories:

Blond peat: Blond to light brown peat with a fibrous texture which is slightly decomposed.
Brown peat: Brown-coloured and moderately decomposed peat moss.
Black peat: Almost black, highly decomposed, and very rich in carbon.


The environmental impact of peat extraction from peatlands

Peatlands, either bogs or fens, cover less than 3% of the earth’s surface but they are determinant. Peat deposits play a vital role in sequestering twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined!
The peatlands exploitation produces between 5% and 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is more than the gas emissions produced by all air traffic.
The effects of peatland destruction are undeniable, hence the need to regulate peat extraction and its environmental impact.
The protection and restoration of these sensitive areas is a step towards a future with lower emissions, the fight against climate change and the conservation of ecosystems.

A man extracting peat from a peat bog in Finland.
A man extracting peat from a peat bog in Finland.

The beginning of a transition to a Peat-Free future.

The United Kingdom is committed to the protection of peat deposits. It all started this year with the ban on the sale of bagged peat for hobby and home use. As this progressive transition gathers momentum, questions arise:

 

What are the alternatives, do they work as well, and when will the sale of peat substrates completely stop?

 

Consumers are aware of the need to reduce the use of peat. The need for sustainable alternatives opens up a new landscape for substrate brands. As a result, there are many peat-free solutions already on the market. So, for consumers, finding such a substrate is becoming easier and easier.

 

Policy perspectives on peatland phase-out strategies: which are the news?

UK, and the world, face many difficulties in reducing large-scale peatland exploitation. Peatland restoration involves a complex combination of technical, economic, and political factors.
Staying one step ahead, the UK, already established timeframes for peat banning. The prohibition of peat at domestic and professional levels will follow this timetable:

 

2024 – ban on the retail sale of bagged peat substrates.
2026 – ban on some professional uses of peat. Some plants and production methods, such as root ball plants and mushroom cultivation, may be exceptions as they are difficult to substitute.
2030 – ban on all uses of peat.

 

This sets a precedent for other countries. Some European regions with exploited peatlands, like Germany, are already setting their deadlines.

 

“We want to reduce the use of peat in the commercial horticultural sector as far as possible by 2030. In the hobby sector, the aim is to eliminate all use of peat by 2026. We thus support the national peatland strategy aiming at the long-term phasing out of peat use in horticulture.”

 

Taking the UK as an example, the target date for Europe is 2030. This is confirmed by the German Minister of Food and Agriculture, Cem Özdemir.

 

A ban on all uses of peat in the UK is not yet possible. The transition needs to be gradual to give professional horticultural companies time to adapt. The commercial sector needs to discover suitable peat-free growing media and test them with their plants.

 

The challenge is that there are too many parties involved in the process. From soil manufacturers to garden centres and potting soil retailers. In the commercial horticulture and agricultural sector, complete phase-out seems complicated. Despite that fact, the UK hopes to achieve the peat-free milestone by 2030.

 

But… is the impact of alternative solutions less than that of peat extraction?

We can consider yes. Alternative materials could have a carbon-neutral footprint in the future. The first step would be to decarbonise the transport and energy sectors. But even if we achieve this milestone, peat extraction would still not be carbon neutral.

 

Why? Because of its fossil nature and its decomposition during extraction and use. Using peat, carbon emissions are inevitable. The priority is to promote the reduction of peat use, followed by the restoration of natural peatlands.

 

This trend is becoming global, as the effect of the exploitation of these wetlands is not just limited to the UK – climate change is everyone’s problem. For the UK to take action will serve as a mirror for other countries to follow.

A protected and restored peatland in Ireland.
A protected and restored peatland in Ireland.

Sustainable alternatives for peat and innovative solutions


There are different sustainable alternatives to peat substrates including:

● Coco by-products.
● Wood fibres.
● Composted bark.
● Green compost.

 

These materials are renewable and, as we have seen, have a smaller climate footprint than peat. Also, the shortage of raw materials is not a problem for these alternative solutions. Talking about wood, bark, and coconut by-products, the expected demand would be lower than the supply. Only in the case of green waste, the potential requirements would exceed it a bit.
Other substances of natural origin, processed or not, could also be used as raw materials. These include rock wool, clay, perlite, expanded clay, vermiculite, lava rock, and sand.

Different types of substrates from left to right: expanded clay, perlite, vermiculite, coco coir and black peat.
Different types of substrates from left to right: expanded clay, perlite, vermiculite, coco coir and black peat.

Restoring peatlands is acting for a greener future

It is clear. The UK’s efforts, apart from the ban, are to restore peatlands. The UK Government’s project is to “restore approximately 35,000 hectares of peatland in England by the end of this Parliament and leave the environment in a better state for future generations”.

 

The funding targets stretch from Somerset to County Durham and will restore iconic peatland habitats such as the Great North Bog, the Dorset Heaths, and the Lincolnshire Fens.

 

To understand the real impact of this project, thousands of hectares of peatlands – from the Great North Bog to the Norfolk Broads – are set to be restored with twelve new projects awarded funding to help tackle climate change and recover biodiversity.

 

Measuring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions before and after these restorations will demonstrate to policy makers the vital role of peatland restoration in combating climate change.

For our side, as consumers, we can also take action to achieve a greener future – How?

● By using peat-free substrates, such as coco substrates.
● By adopting sustainable agricultural practices.
● By supporting policies that encourage the phasing out of peat extraction.

 

Conclusions

The challenges surrounding peat extraction are complex, but prioritising sustainability is crucial. Understanding the environmental impact of peat extraction is necessary to develop solutions. Policy changes and exploring sustainable alternatives are the path to a greener future.

 

Bibliography

 

Thousands of hectares of peatlands set to be restored to help tackle climate change

 

Going peat-free, protecting the climate 

 

The European Peat Market to Languish Due to New Eco Regulation – Global Trade Magazine

 

Assessment on Peatlands, Biodiversity and Climate change

 

UK Government confirms total ban on all peat-based gardening products will not be implemented until 2030 | The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside

 

Press release: Peatland protection pays off – Massive conservation and restoration is needed

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