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November 2006: News

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The Scoop on Peat

By Margo Royer-Miller

Peat is a resource that is used in many ways and appreciated by many people. Because of its widespread applications and popularity, it bears some consideration. Here is a brief overview of what I have learned about peat moss and why I would choose not to use it.

What is peat? Peat is soil made up of plant and animal matter that is only partially decomposed.

How is it formed? Peat is formed through a layering of dead plant and animal matter that is waterlogged, generally about 90% water and 10% solid material. The undecomposed layers pile up over time to form this rich substance because the rate of plant growth is greater than the rate of decomposition. Peat only forms in areas where complete decomposition cannot occur due to water-logging. The places peat will grow are called “peatlands.” “Bogs” and “fens” are two types of peatlands. The peat formation process takes thousands of years.

Where is it found? Peatlands exist mostly in northern, temperate zones due to climate. Canada and Finland have the greatest area of existing peatlands. Due to industrialization in these same northern zones, many peatlands have been removed for various uses.

How is peat used? Due to the undecomposed plant and animal matter, peat is rich in fossil carbon. It is often used as a fuel source, burned to create heat and energy. It is also milled and commonly found in garden supply stores as “peat moss” in compost and mulch mixes. In addition peat or peat moss has been used for packaging, building, textiles, air purification, filtering, etc.

Why avoid using peat? I will outline three things I have considered. First, peat is a limited (non-renewable) natural resource; we use it much more quickly than it is created in nature (remember it takes thousands of years for the formation process to occur). Second, peatlands are an important ecosystem that houses many plants and animals specially adjusted to living in peatlands; for example, some migratory birds spend the winter in peatlands, Some of these species are rare and endangered. Some are ancient species, as peatlands are thousands of years old. Peatlands are a rich habitat; therefore, harvesting peat will eliminate one of the world’s unique ecosystems. Third, because peat is so rich in fossil carbon it emits greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) when it is both harvested and burned as fuel. This contributes to the unhealthy imbalance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

There you have it, some beginning information about peat and some things to think about as you intentionally choose to use or not to use peat.

Resources for further learning:

International Peat Society:

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Irish Peatland Council:

Environment and Heritage Service:



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