Town hails weed control after banning chemical

A UK town council that has gone completely glyphosate-free says it is having good success with alternatives, as the EU debates whether to allow the weedkiller to be used in public areas.

Weeds: councils looking for cost-effective treatments - image: HW
Weeds: councils looking for cost-effective treatments - image: HW

Earlier this month MEPs recommended glyphosate be registered for seven years but that it should not be approved for use in parks, playgrounds, gardens or other public areas or for use by amateurs. The decision on whether to adopt that proposal will be decided by the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food & Feed on 18-19 May.

Glastonbury Town Council voted to ban glyphosate in June 2015, with the decision taking effect immediately and before it trialled alternatives. The local authority, in the district of Mendip, had already stopped using pesticides in its own properties some years earlier.

But some of its street cleansing and other grounds maintenance was carried out by The Landscape Group as part of its 10-year contract to provide a range of services to the wider Mendip District Council, meaning parts of the town were still sprayed with glyphosate.

After locals and councillors raised concerns about the environmental and health risks posed by glyphosate, it was agreed that the chemical should be banned while alternatives were found.

A demonstration and trial convinced Glastonbury to settle on Foamstream, a weed-killing method created by WeedingTech. The process combines a hot-water spray with a plant-based foam additive that penetrates and collapses cell walls. It was agreed that the town would have to purchase and operate a machine itself, with The Landscape Group making up the value of its original contract through hand weeding in the town.

Town councillor Emma George, who pushed for the ban, said she has spent a lot of time researching alternatives. Nearby Yeo Valley Farms, SouthWest Water, United Utilities and the parish of St Helier in Jersey were all positive about their use of the foam option.

A controlled trial was carried out comparing hot water, hand weeding and Foamstream, measuring the time taken for the treatments, dieback and regrowth. It quickly became clear that weeding by hand was "exorbitant" but Foamstream appeared to take the same time as glyphosate to cover a similar area, said George.

"The Landscape Group told us a particular path took two days," she added "We set out to cover the same area in two days, and we did it. But the effect is very different. The weeds die off much quicker after the use of Foamstream." The foam is also effective even if it rains immediately after application, while glyphosate requires penetrants to achieve the same effect.

George said calculations so far show that it costs about 7p per linear metre for Glastonbury to use Foamstream, counting all costs such as diesel, foam, in-house council labour, the van and water, but excluding the purchase of the machine. By comparison, it would cost 23p per linear metre for a contractor to do same job, 26p for a contractor to use hot water alone and 32p for a contractor to hand weed, George pointed out.

A full year of results is needed before Glastonbury can be sure of its choice but George said regrowth so far from the areas treated last summer has been minimal, which is "a pleasant surprise". WeedingTech also claims that regrowth drops off the more that Foamstream gets used because seeds in the ground are killed off during treatment, meaning costs should fall over time.

Since it takes the Foamstream two weeks to cover the entire town, Glastonbury is now looking at whether it can hire its machine out to neighbouring parishes to recoup costs. The town would like to negotiate some clawback of the funds from Mendip once clear figures have been obtained from the trials.

Mendip's Stuart Finney, manager of the operational assets and contracts team, said The Landscape Group is not obligated to agree to use a glyphosate alternative, having tendered based on the costs of using the chemical. "The Landscape Group came to the conclusion that (Foamstream) wasn't cost-effective or particularly easy to use, but the town council were keen and they feel so strongly that they were willing to put in the time, effort and money," he explained.

Finney admitted to scepticism about the costs involved as well as the environmental impact of running a diesel machine and heating the water. While The Landscape Group's glyphosate spraying cost "several hundred pounds", he estimated that Glastonbury could spend up to eight times as much once hand weeding and the purchase of the Foamstream machine are included.

Although Finney is confident that glyphosate is safe to use, should the EU decide to ban the weedkiller the Glastonbury experiment will prove important, he added.

Carl Wright, The Landscape Group's neighbourhood manager for the contract area, said he is "watching very closely" to see how the method performs as the weather warms. "It's a very brave move because it's hard to keep control of the weeds at this time of year," he said. "At the moment we're starting to get the flush of weed growth and it will be interesting to see whether they manage to control them and how effectively - and how quickly they get around, because it's a big area to cover."

Several other local authorities have taken the decision to look at alternatives to glyphosate in recent months, including Edinburgh and Brighton. However, they have all said they want to determine whether alternatives are cost-effective before enforcing any ban.

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