This is down to the 'Four sins of peat extraction':

1) Greenhouse gases.. Peat is the only fossil material we use for growing media. After a few years in your pot or garden, the carbon content of peat is oxidised to CO2. Peat bogs are the largest terrestrial carbon store, which should stay in the ground if we want to have a chance at fighting climate change.

2) Loss of the sponge effect. Peat bogs act like sponges, preventing floods by temporarily storing excessive rainfalls and releasing water in terms of drought. Ironically, some of the worst-hit areas of the floods of 2021 happened near former peatlands.

3) Biodiversity. Peat bogs in their natural state are valuable retreats for rare plant and animal species. Schemes like RPP can address the loss of biodiversity by limiting peat extraction to areas that are already degraded. For this to work, all players involved have to do a great job: local authorities, peat industry, domestic industry. If this is not the case, RPP could be the fig leaf that allows us to continue using peat without moral qualms.

4) Subsiding ground. The Netherlands used to be a big peat extractor, which is part of the reason that such large parts of this country are below sea level today. Taken together with rising sea levels, one might say we've dug our own wet grave. Today, we're importing peat. In this way, we're exporting that damage elsewhere. In Latvia, which has the largest peat industry worldwide in relation to its surface area, 98% of the country is less than 200 m above sea level. Sounds familiar?


These four sins of peat extraction are not the only damage that this form of open pit mining is causing:

  • Water pollution
  • Verhoging van het risico op brand
  • Nitrogen emissions
  • Local warming: extraction sites are 2°C warmer than the surrounding area due to the darker surface colour
  • Less rain as the reflection of heat on the dark and vegetation-free surface removes clouds

Please see our collection of peat-free potting soils and plants (LINK). In this list, we're very strict: we even exclude coco-based alternatives. We're delighted that almost every larger shop offers a peat-free alternative by now.

From a geological point of view, peat is not fossilized yet. The IPCC has created its own category for peat between renewable and fossil. However, as re-growing extracted peat takes thousands of years and is therefore not happening on human timescales, the IPCC writes: "Although peat is not strictly speaking a fossil fuel, its greenhouse gas emission characteristics have been shown in life cycle studies to be comparable to that of fossil fuels. Therefore, the CO2 emissions from combustion of peat are included in the national emissions as for fossil fuels." LINK

When we hear the term fossil, we think of (non-) renewable materials, not about geological processes. Therefore, we call peat a fossil material.

The bio label tells you that you bought a product free of chemical fertilizer and crop protection, nothing else. Bio potting soil can be 100% peat!

In contrast, the European Ecolabel does not allow peat use.

Producing peat-based substrates is simple, which is why it's so popular. Add the desired amount of fertilizer to the nutrient-poor peat, then adjust the pH of the acidic material with lime; that's it!

Replacing peat with alternatives usually involves complex mixtures of renewable materials, such as:

– Coco-peat

- Green waste compost (e.g., leaves, grass, bark, wood fibres...)

- Sphagnum moss and other bog plants like cattail or flake

– Biochar

- Sheep wool

- Mineral sources: perlite, vermiculite, sand

Regarding CO2 emissions, agriculture on drained peatlands currently has a very negative impact on our climate. The agricultural sector is responsible for more greenhouse gases than peat extraction. Nevertheless, peat extraction leads to higher incomes and environmental damage per hectare of land. As a result, peat extraction acts as a powerful economic incentive to keep peat bogs dry. It is essential that we remove all financial incentives that make it attractive to drain peatlands and keep them drained.

Agriculture and the substrate industry play a cat-and-mouse game here: the substrate industry points fingers at the agriculture sector for their more significant overall emissions, while the agriculture sector says that the real problem lies with the substrate industry, which causes more intense destruction with their open pit mining activities.

Potting soil is very airy, allowing for the tiny roots of seedlings to take hold. It also has good water retention characteristics. You need potting soil only for a plant's seedling or rooting phase. After that phase, most plants can go directly into the full ground of your garden or less specialized soil types like gardening ground.

Why do we use potting soil for other applications like filling up beds and pots? Most potting soils are very cheap because they're made of peat. And that low price, in turn, comes from the fact that the environmental damage of peat extraction is not priced into this product.

Yes, they do indeed exist in sufficient quantities (see this study by Thünen institute). However, the fact that they exist does not mean that they are readily available for the substrate industry. Two main stumbling blocks still exist:

- Competition from other industries, like the heavily subsidised biomass combustion.

- Lack of adequate composting facilities.

We often see a lamentable waste of biomass, e.g., growers who simply burn their green waste or sheep wool, which gets binned. If you see something like that, then get active and talk to people about the value of the material in their hands.

The answer is a qualified maybe. Coir and peat are the only materials used for substrates, which can be used on their own, without using complex mixtures- except for some special species which grow in pure rockwool, perliet, or even water! This stresses the favourable properties of coir. Is coir also more sustainable than peat? Let's look at the extremes, the twin stories of Bad Coir and Good Coir.

'Bad Coir' means that land is cleared to create coconut plantations. Child labour might be involved in coconut production. Extensive washing steps of the coir lead to excessive water use in the harvesting countries and leave a salt deposit in the local waterways. The transport over long distances adds to the ecological footprint of 'Bad Coir'.

'Good Coir' is a by-product of coconut production, a textbook example of a clean cascading mechanism: we eat the nut, drink the milk, and use the fibre as material. The leftover is coir for the substrate industry. Meticulous care is taken for local environmental and social concerns. This material is compacted for transport, minimising its emissions. The 'Good Coir' is washed and further processed in the countries that use it, adhering to strict social and environmental standards.

A certification scheme, Responsibly Produced Coir is currently being set up, reminiscent of the established RPP (Responsibly' 'Produced' Peat) certification scheme. We hope this scheme will help shift the balance towards 'Good Coir.'

The argument that growing media are essential to green cities and that without these substrates, only hardening remains seems to be an evident fallacy of the horticultural sector and the peat lobby, which unfortunately reflects their limited view of urban greening. The suggestion that without growing media, our cities would automatically harden ignores the natural ability of wasteland to green spontaneously, without human intervention. Nature does not need human intervention to thrive. 

Even if we as humans want to have more influence on plant choice, it is still possible to green our cities without resorting to growing media. Choosing native plants that thrive naturally in the environment and are well adapted to the local soil provides a sustainable alternative. These plants can also be obtained free of charge as root material through initiatives such as meerbomen.

The argument that growing media are necessary only becomes more complex when attempting to place specific plants in unsuitable soils, such as an acid-loving plant in an alkaline soil. In this case, we would have to use substrates, but the argument is an economic and not an ecological one.

RPP is a scheme which aims at limiting peat extraction to formerly degraded peatlands. It also regulates the after-use of extracted peat bogs.

Regelingen zoals RPP kunnen inderdaad helpen om de schade van turfwinning te beperken if done well. If extraction sites are limited to those which are previously degraded, then the loss of biodiversity can be minimised.

However 1: the definition of RPP is quite open to allowing adaptation to local variations, e.g., " The aim will be rehabilitation to original natural conditions, as close as possible and practically feasible.” (LINK) Sounds nice, but this formulation leaves the door open to cheap but
ultimately damaging after-uses like afforestation (see IPCC report).

However 2: Psychologically, as a moral fig-leaf: Using 'responsibly' produced peat might feel like doing the right thing, so why even try to limit the use of peat?

We are getting signals that the relatively new RPP scheme is increasingly stringent. Its success ultimately depends on all players taking their responsibilities very seriously. 

We have European regulations protecting valuable habitats and the RPPscheme, which mandates site selection and after-use rules. So, where is the problem?

Peat extraction leads to a significant loss of biodiversity. Unfortunately, the existing rules are not followed well or written in a way that favours excessive and reckless extraction and environmentally inept restoration plans. Some examples:

In Latvia (Source): “The list of protected habitats in Latvia does not include raised bogs,” “landowners can drain without the obligation of following any pre-established safeguards,” “If peat extraction is proposed in a Natura 2000 site, a specific order must be applied (Cabinet Regulation No. 300 (19/04/2011). Peat extraction and/or extension of the existing peat extraction areas in Natura 2000 areas are possible only in very few exceptional cases (Gauja National Park, Pape Nature Park with ongoing peat extraction” “After-use of post-harvested peatlands can be as follows: re-naturalisation (restoration of mire or other type of wetland), creation of agricultural lands, afforestation, creation of water bodies for use in recreation” “many extracted peatlands are abandoned without re-cultivation.”

In Lithuania (Source): “conflicting situation due to different regulations, set in the laws of Protected sites and Forestry. For example, according to Forestry law, after clearing the vegetation in wetland, cleared site must be replanted within 3 years period (par.5) while law of Protected sites requires to keep such site open.” “Law on Land Reclamation (approved by Seimas on December 9, 1993, Resolution No. I-323) and all its versions does not mention peatlands” “protected sites are still appointed as sites for excavation” “only few cases of re-cultivation in completely extracted peatlands because most of peatlands are treated as ‘active’. However, abandoned peatlands remain in such status for years without any kind of restoration or further usage.” “Abandoned peatlands have no regulation.” “…hydrological regime may not be changed. It means the landuser is not allowed neither to drain it nor increase the water level.” “The methodology for re-cultivation is outdated, it provides guidance to revert post-mined site into water bodies”

GME, formerly known as EPGMA (European Peat and Growing Media Association), seeks to position itself as the advocate for all growing media producers. Minimizing the ecological impact of peat extraction is absolutely not central to their efforts. In fact; downplaying the ecological and climate damage caused by peat extraction is central to their activities. For example, documented on page 4 of this report. For this reason, we will continue to describe GME as a turf lobby unless the circumstances change.