Peat-free Compost

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 14 peat-free compost brands.

We also look at the problem with peat extraction, home-composting options, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Scotts Miracle-Gro Company and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when you are buying peat-free compost:

  • Is it organic? There are a few companies offering organic compost products. Look for the Soil Association certification logo when buying peat-free compost. 

  • Is it from a local community composting scheme? Before heading out to buy a national brand, check whether there is a local composting scheme in your area selling peat-free compost. 

Best Buys

If you can find a local supplier or make your own we recommend the following brands as they all scored well:

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying peat-free compost:

  • Is the company peat-free? Peat bogs store carbon and support biodiversity, make sure the entire company is peat-free, not just the brand.

  • Does the company sell harmful herbicides or pesticides? Avoid companies which are selling harmful chemicals which cause harm to wildlife and the natural environment. 

Companies to avoid

We would recommend avoiding the following brands because they were still selling peat products:

  • William Sinclair
  • Scotts Siera
  • Wickes
  • Waitrose
  • B&Q

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

Fertile Fibre peat free organic compost

Company Profile: Fertile Fibre
14

GroChar peat free compost

Company Profile: Carbon Gold Ltd
14

Eden Project coir compost

Company Profile: Eden Project
13

Traidcraft Fair Trade Coir Compost Block

Company Profile: Traidcraft plc
12.5

Dalefoot wool compost

Company Profile: Barker and Bland
12

Revive peat free compost

Company Profile: Viridor Ltd
11.5

Vital Earth peat free compost

Company Profile: Vital Earth
11.5

New Horizon peat free compost

Company Profile: William Sinclair Holdings Plc
11

Gro Sure peat free compost

Company Profile: Westland Horticulture
9.5

Levington peat free compost

Company Profile: Scotts Company (The)
7.5

Miracle-Gro peat free compost

Company Profile: Scotts Company (The)
7.5

Wickes peat free compost

Company Profile: Wickes
5.5

Waitrose peat free compost

Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
5

B&Q Verve peat free compost

Company Profile: B&Q
3.5

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

Despite the well documented environmental consequences of its extraction peat still remains the growing medium of choice among many amateur and professional gardeners.

In 2013, 1.9 million cubic metres of peat were sold in the UK, which accounts for just over half of the overall market for growing media.

Of this huge volume of peat, over 95% was used in growing media, with the majority (two-thirds) being consumed by amateur gardeners, and the remainder by professional growers, local authorities and landscapers. Just under half of the peat sold for growing media came from the Republic of Ireland, with a further 38% coming from the UK, and the rest from Northern Europe, according to a 2013 government report.

Reducing peat consumption among amateur gardeners is key to continuing the decline of peat production, not just in Europe but globally, as this group still presents the greatest demand.

In an effort to protect the environment, the UK government produced a Natural Environment White Paper in 2011, setting out targets for the complete phase-out of peat usage by 2030.

As a result, UK peat production declined by just under a third between 2011 and 2013. Production in the Republic of Ireland, a key source of peat to the UK market, has also declined. However, extraction from cheaper sources in Northern Europe have held steady.

Peat appeal

The popularity of peat is relatively recent, growing out of a deliberate campaign by producers in the 1950s to replace heavy, loam-based growing media (those made of plant material) which were costly to transport.

Peat is much lighter and, although naturally sterile, holds nutrients and water well, releasing them as required. Peat is also a good soil improver, breaking up heavy, clay soils and binding sandy, silty ones. Its low pH also makes peat good for acid-loving (ericaceous) plants.

Peatlands under threat

image:peatlands

But this quality and convenience comes at a cost for both biodiversity and the earth’s climate.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the biodiversity of UK peatlands is of international significance. These peatlands, especially blanket bogs, support multiple bird species which have legal protection under national and EU conservation law, such as golden plover, greenshank and red-throated diver.

Indeed, one of the most important functions of peatlands is to reproduce themselves as a global carbon store. In waterlogged bogs plants do not decompose when they die, rather their organic matter is laid down and slowly accumulates as peat due to the lack of oxygen. In the process, the carbon that would have been released during decomposition remains stored in the peat itself, released only when the bogs are drained and cut or when the peat is burned.
This process of laying down new peat accumulations make peatland ecosystems vital to maintaining the global peat store.

However despite the multiple environmental issues associated with peat extraction it remains widely available on the UK market. This is partly due to the negative attention peat-free alternatives continue to receive.

Three top tips for using peat-free compost

  • Know your plants and what they need before buying a compost product. Seeds and cuttings need low nutrient, well draining composts and as plants grow they need more nutrient-rich compost. The nutrients and soil type required by plants should determine the compost type you buy, for example: acidic or alkaline, well draining, etc. So research plants first!
  • Try to source a compost made from local materials. For example, soil collected from mole hills is excellent for sowing seeds.
  • Try to grow in the ground wherever possible (not just pots) and sheet mulch (an agricultural technique that attempts to copy a forest’s natural processes).

Companies who also sell products containing peat:

  • William Sinclair
  • Wickes
  • B&Q
  • Scotts Sierra

Ethical Consumer urges these companies to remove peat-based products from sale before the 2020 deadline as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes.

How do peat alternatives stack up?

Joanna Long talks to Dr. Paul Alexander of the Royal Horticultural Society.

How do peat-based growing media measure up to peat-free alternatives these days?

The enduring appeal of peat has been that it is a very predictable growing medium. It holds water and nutrients well and you know what you were getting from one bag to the next. This is becoming less the case now as lower-quality, cheaper sources of peat can be used to meet consumer demand, which can reduce the predictability of peat-based growing media.

The opposite is happening with peatfree alternatives. Previously these tended to be more unpredictable than peat as they were comprised of materials of variable quality. In the past 10 years, however, the quality of materials has improved and with it, the predictability of peat-free growing media has improved substantially.

Coir is often promoted as a sustainable alternative to peat, but how sustainable is it in practice?

For the UK market, coir is largely sourced from India and Sri Lanka, although it is also available from other areas (e.g. Mexico). The coir used in growing media is actually the dust that remains from the  processing of coconut husks being used to produce rope and mat fibres. Although it is often described as a waste material it is now considered by many to be part of the business model and therefore often considered a by-product. Some believe it would be better used to manage and improve local soil quality.

How effective is coir as a growing medium?

Coir is a very good ingredient for growing media. It is important to recognise that no one material on its own works brilliantly. They are all amended to some degree when made into bagged growing media. Peat is made into good growing media by the addition of nutrients, wetting agents and materials like composted bark chips.

Coir is considered by many to be the best propagation material, better even than peat-based materials, due to its fine particle size. This can be a bit too fine for longer-term growing on of plants (1+ years), although as with other products the addition of other materials can help this.

What about the other alternatives on offer, such as household green waste, wool-based growing media and homemade compost?

Composted green waste certainly has the potential to be part of the solution in peat free growing. The problem at the moment is that it can be highly variable from bag to bag and therefore very unpredictable as growing media. This is mainly because the feed material varies (i.e. the material going into the composting process).

Also, some people put anything coloured green in the green waste bin, including glass and plastics, meaning there can be a problem with contaminants or ‘sharps’ ending up in the final bagged product. Some companies are having to hand-sort their feed material in order to address this.So as a growing medium, green waste is still a bit unpredictable, but using it as a soil conditioner is a better way to go.

Wool, like coir, is marketed as a waste material and it does have some potential for growing. However, it can be quite rich and there is the danger that it could damage young growth, so seed germination can be risky. There are several companies working hard to make this a viable product though, and I do hope they are successful.

Home-made compost is a fantastic soil conditioner. There is advice on the RHS website about home composting but my main piece of advice would be to avoid unrealistic expectations and have patience!

Spotlight on coir pith

Environmental damage caused by peat mining and the intensifying search for alternatives has led to coir pith becoming a key component of some peat-free growing media. 

Coir pith, also known as coco peat, is the material found between coconut husk fibres and is a 
by-product of the coconut industry. The largest producers of coir fibre (and therefore coir pith) are India and Sri Lanka. Coir pith has been growing in popularity as a component of growing media since the early 1990s but quality tended to vary and relatively little was known about the supply chains through which coir pith made its way to the UK.

Following the Natural Environment White Paper (2011), which included plans to phase out peat usage by 2030, the Sustainable Growing Media Task Force (SGMTF) was established to look into alternatives to peat and ensure that one unsustainable material was not replaced with another. As part of this, the group commissioned a study into coir pith: an apparently too-good-to-be-true alternative growing media that not only challenged peat in growing effectiveness but solved waste problems elsewhere in the world. [1]

Image: Coir pith

Coir pith processing

When coconuts are harvested they are separated into kernel and husk. The kernel (or copra) is either used directly as food or processed into other food products or oil. The husk, meanwhile, is sent to fibre mills to be processed and then used to make mattresses, geotextiles and products for the automotive industry. The by-product of this fibre processing stage is coir pith, which historically would have been burned or simply left outside the fibre mill to rot, but is now itself being processed and shipped to horticultural markets in Europe, Australia and the USA.

Processing coir pith is a multi-stage process. First the pith is matured for up to 6 months to reduce the salt, tannin and phenol content, to gain a more favourable carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, and to change the pH from acidic to neutral. The pith is then sieved to remove physical contaminants and then washed with water to reduce the salt content further. The pith may also be ‘buffered’, that is, washed with a mixture of water and calcium nitrate, to displace sodium and balance the naturally occurring potassium. The pith is then dried and packaged for export.

Water

The most obvious area of concern regarding coir pith is water consumption and pollution. Sri Lanka has few issues with water availability but in India the main coir pith processing plants are in Tamil Nadu, which suffers from water stress and scarcity.

The SGMTF study found that few pith processing plants were making efforts to conserve water or implement water management practices. Also, the process of washing and buffering coir pith happens simply by hosing or spraying mounds of coir pith.

If untreated or simply allowed to trickle away, the run-off (containing salts and other chemical, microbial and physical contaminants) can affect surface water, groundwater and soils. Some factories do wash coir pith on concrete floors in order to collect and treat the run-off but such practices do not appear to be widespread.

Workers

Another key area of concern in the coir pith industry are working conditions. Coir particles are very fine and lightweight, making them easily carried on the air and creating very dusty working conditions. Keeping floors and machinery free of dust and the use of personal protective equipment helped alleviate the problem, although the latter is very uncomfortable in the hot and humid climates of India and Sri Lanka.

The SGMTF study also found that workers in coir pith factories were often working six-day weeks with multiple shifts and, although India and Sri Lanka were deemed to have ‘adequate labour legislation’, this was only enforced in the formal, industrial sector and did not include informal sectors of the coir industry.

Transport costs

Another sustainability question mark for coir pith concerns the costs associated with transporting it from the processing sites in India and Sri Lanka to Western markets. However, coir pith can be compressed into blocks for longdistance transport meaning that it can be transported at a fraction of the size of its usable form.

According to Tom de Vesci of Horticultural Coir Ltd, a single pallet carries 2.7m3 of coir blocks weighing around 950kg. Once hydrated by the UK seller or end user, the contents of this pallet will reconstitute to 12-14m3 or more depending on the quality of the product. 

Similarly, Fertile Fibre claims that less fuel per tonne is used to transport its coir pith from Sri Lanka to the UK than is used transporting the coir between port and factory within the UK. 

A DEFRA taskforce is currently working to quantify the transport costs for coir more precisely but figures have yet to be released.

Supply chain

The SGMTF study also noted water issues elsewhere in the coir pith supply chain, such as the use of ‘retting’ (soaking husks) in coir fibre production and irrigation of coconut plantations. However, given that the coir pith sector comprises 50% of the coir fibre industry and just 5% of the overall coconut industry, the impact any changes to the coir pith supply chain could have were deemed to be too low to have much wider influence. It also seems unlikely that horticultural demand for coir pith will drive unsustainable practices in the coconut industry in general, as coir pith remains a waste product for coconut and coir fibre producers and existing supply is abundant.

All the same, supply chain management appears to be a low priority, not just in the coir industry but in the compost industry more generally, as only one of the companies reviewed on our table.

Quality

In the early years of development of the coir pith industry products tended to be of variable quality and therefore of limited use in horticulture. However, as the economic value of coir pith has 
increased due to the intensifying search for alternatives to peat, the quality has improved.

That said, many coir blocks on sale in the UK are unbranded or unlabelled making it difficult to establish what you are buying and from whom. However, Fertile Fibre, Traidcraft and the Eden Project all sell their own brand of coir blocks and have therefore been included on our table. 

Community & home composting

Community composting

There may be local composting projects in your area which sell locally produced products, such as the Fairfield Composting community composting project in East Manchester. You can get advice on starting your own scheme via the Community Composting Network, 0114 258 0483.

Home composting

You may also want to produce your own compost.Or see the following websites for guides:

Wormeries

If you don’t have a garden or enough space for a compost bin, you can still make your own soil conditioner using kitchen waste. One method is to have a wormery, feed your kitchen scraps into it and collect the resulting ‘juice’ to add to your soil. It is very rich, so it’s best to use in small amounts.

Downsides of wormeries are that you can’t just put anything in (dairy, meat and bones are no-nos); some things need to be cooked before adding them (such as onions, garlic and citrus peel); they can give off a very pungent odour; and the worms themselves are not free to roam.

Bokashi bins

A more versatile, and animal-free, alternative is a bokashi bin, which pickles your kitchen waste (bokashi is Japanese for ‘fermentation’). Simply add all your cooked and uncooked kitchen waste (dairy, meat and bone included), add the special bacterial bran and leave it to work for a couple of weeks (it can be useful to have more than one bokashi bin so that you can alternate).

The smell of fermentation is contained inside the bucket and you can keep the conditions inside just right by draining off excess liquid using the little tap at the base of the bucket. After a couple of weeks, empty the contents onto your soil and dig in, or add it to your existing compost bin.

Company Profile

The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, which owns both the Miracle-Gro and Levington brands, is the world’s largest marketer of branded consumer lawn and garden products, including Monsanto’s Roundup brand. Although Miracle-Gro and Levington both offer peat-free composts, the company also sells Irish peat alongside a range of toxic herbicides and insecticides. In 2012 the company was fined $4.5m (US) by a US District Court for adding unlicensed pesticides to their wild bird feeds.

The company also scores Ethical Consumer’s worst ratings for likely use of tax avoidance strategies, environmental reporting and supply chain management. In 2014 it paid four of its directors between $2.9m and $4.1m (US) each, which Ethical Consumer deemed to be excessive.

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If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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