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.
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?
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:
- Green waste compost (e.g., leaves, grass, bark, wood fibres...)
- Sphagnum moss and other bog plants like cattail or flake
- Sheep wool
- Mineral sources: perlite, vermiculite, sand
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 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.
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.
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.
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.