DIY chains and garden centres ‘adding to climate crisis’ by selling peat as government fails to end trade

Horticulture industry and ministers accused of dragging their feet over preserving eco-friendly material

Jane Dalton
Wednesday 28 October 2020 18:46 GMT

Garden centres and DIY stores are way off track on meeting a government target to end peat use by amateur gardeners, figures show.

Green experts said the rate at which peat is still being dug up means the UK’s gardens are helping to accelerate the climate crisis.

Stores including B&Q and Wickes, as well as numerous websites, all sell peat products.  

Between 2015 and 2019, the amount of peat contained in composts sold to shoppers showed only a small drop, from almost 53 per cent to 41.5 per cent.  

Friends of the Earth called on ministers to act, after the government announced a decade ago the voluntary phase-out of peat use by 2020.  

The new figures, from the Growing Media Monitor report, suggest the horticulture sector “is dragging its feet in ending peat use”, Paul de Zylva of the group said. 

“At this rate, it will take them many years to go peat-free. Ministers have had a decade to hit their own target but they have let garden centres, DIY stores and the horticulture industry cash-in by continuing to sell this important national asset at rock-bottom prices.”

Peat is partially decayed plant matter that has built up over thousands of years to form bogs, moors and fens in areas waterlogged with rainwater. It can take a year or more for peat to build up by just 1 millimetre but humans can destroy it in minutes.

UK peatlands store more than 3,000 million tons of damaging greenhouse gases, and when they are dug up, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere instead of being absorbed.  

The bogs also soak up rainwater and are rich natural habitats, supporting a range of birds, including breeding dunlin and golden plover.  

“Peatlands are vital for supporting wildlife, holding back flood waters and storing carbon. The government must do far more to protect them,” said Mr de Zyla.

“Despite the government pledge to end peat sales to amateur gardeners by 2020 it’s still being stacked high and sold cheap in most garden centres and DIY stores across the UK. The trade should be helping people to garden responsibly by giving customers truly peat-free alternatives as the norm.”

At the same time, environmental organisations highlighted the first anniversary of a government promise to ban burning on peatlands, accusing ministers of prevaricating and undermining the UK’s claim to environmental leadership.  

Grouse moor managers set light to the ground in the autumn to ensure grouse have new shoots of heather to eat the following year before they are shot for sport.

“Letting the nation’s unique peatlands go up in smoke is senseless and makes it harder for ministers to hit their pledges to restore nature, cut flood risk and store carbon to stave off dangerous climate breakdown,” said Mr de Zyla.  

Plantlife, CPRE — the countryside charity, Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, RSPB, Wildlife and Countryside Link, and the Soil Association called for a burning ban.  

Government data suggest the carbon dioxide released every year from burning on peatlands is equivalent to the gases from more than 175,000 cars.

The coalition also highlighted the prime minister’s pledge to protect 30 per cent of the UK’s land for nature.  

Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “Peatlands are the UK’s rainforests. But the government continues to turn a blind eye to the regular burning. Now is the ideal time for ministers to say how and when it will deliver an ambitious England Peat Strategy.  

“Continuing to do nothing could leave us with a backdrop of burning heather for next year's CoP26 climate conference in Glasgow, undermining the UK’s claims of international leadership.”  

A B&Q spokesperson said the chain stopped selling 100 per cent peat compost in 2008, adding: “Over the last three years, working with our suppliers, we have developed our new 100 per cent peat-free compost, formulated using coir and other ingredients to replace peat.” She said the company was committed to phasing out peat across its supply chain.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said the government was committed to phasing out the use of peat in horticultural products in England, and wanted the transition to be as seamless as possible for the industry. “We will continue to work with the industry to accelerate progress and will be setting out our proposals in our forthcoming England Peat Strategy,” she said.

The Independent has also asked Wickes to comment.

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