The EU has spoken out on pesticides. Again. This time it's the Directive on Sustainable Use of Pesticides, which sets out the vision from Brussels on reducing the impact and use of pesticides in the public realm.
The main force of the document, published for the first time on 24 November (see box, page 29), centres on the need for European countries to draw up so-called national action plans, but the impact will be felt closer to home than a few national boundaries on a map of Europe.
It will be felt on a street near you, says Grant Stark, a policy adviser at the UK's Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD), the former Pesticides Safety Directorate. He insists that the inevitable change in work practices and culture is likely to be "profound". Transport infrastructure - in other words, streets and roads - is deemed a "high-risk amenity situation", he observes.
"We have explored the possibilities of what would happen if pesticide applications were eliminated. While few people are seriously considering a total ban on pesticides, they are looking to minimise their use. That alone is a big enough challenge for the industry. Classic amenity situations include playgrounds, streets and other hard surfaces as well as parks."
Landscape architects and specifiers take note of the grey areas, Stark warns. Though the directive outlines general principles, it leans towards an agricultural perspective. The challenge, he says, is to convert that language into something that's more meaningful in the amenity sector, from roads and town squares to parks and gardens.
"There is also almost an inbuilt requirement that risk will continue to decline as the years go by, so you can't just put in place measures and then stand back and say 'that's me done'. You are expected to improve practices and reduce risk all the time and the European Commission is working up a series of risk indicators."
This will have cost implications for designers specifying materials because they will have to take a longer-term look at their projects, he reckons. Stark warns against panic, saying a "touchstone" for member states is to make "controls proportionate to deal with existing risks". Just what those implications are could become clearer after public consultation.
Early next year, the CRD aims to throw open the debate by calling for industry opinion on preferred approaches and potential costs. Ministers will use the feedback to work up a package of guidance measures in time for when the directive starts to become law, which is due at the back end of 2011.
"The directive wants to be all things to all member states," says Stark. "Some countries already ban use of pesticides on streets and elsewhere, but other members such as the UK focus on minimising use. Falling into line will be tough for designers, distributors and advisers in everything from training and sales to regulatory tests for equipment and safeguarding water sources."
Nick Mole, policy officer for PAN UK, a campaign group for responsible pesticide use, says local authorities will have to improve practices - and many are. Some London boroughs are switching to widespread use of cultural methods of control such as mulches and PAN UK will work with councils across the capital early next year on pilot areas to trial non-pesticide treatments.
Landscape architects will have to sharpen up on surface treatments because they have to balance not only the demands of the pesticides directive but also those of the Water Framework Directive, says Mole. Bad specification in the past has led to paving that lets weeds flourish, while avoiding water run-off and pesticide contamination need to be factored into design.
"However, change must be cultural. It cannot merely pinpoint physical aspects such as using mulch instead of weedkillers. Many local authorities are seen as the real villains of the peace. Specifications for jobs are largely driven by cost, not necessarily best practice, so cheaper blanket spraying becomes a standard treatment."
Cay-Joachim Crasemann, a landscape architect with London-based practice Project Centre, specialises in pesticide-free weed control. Before coming to England, he spent several years fine-tuning approaches in his native Germany, which has widely outlawed the use of pesticides in urban areas such as streets and playgrounds.
As well as standard approaches such as specifying weed-free topsoil and laying light-proof geomembranes to kill weeds, designers need to hone their plant selection and planting skills to maximise advantages of ground cover, he says.
"Shrubs and specimens need time to establish, so it's good to use an integrated planting scheme that blends permanent ground cover and quicker cover that throws out foliage within a year. Or you can go for mulch such as conifer bark up to 100mm thick. Sterilized compost can be used in perennial planting areas and maintained through reapplication."
Good ground cover plants include vigorous perennials such as Lady's Mantle Alchemilla mollis Award of Garden Merit (AGM), or larger more rampant perennials such as Phlomis russeliana. For dense shrub layers, evergreens such as Viburnum davidii and Rhododendron yakushimanum 'Koichiro Wada' are often preferred. The compact growth of semi evergreens such as Hypericum kalmianum 'Gemo' means less pruning and less exposed soil.
"I prefer to use a layered design, with permanent and sacrificial cover, using plants like Geranium macrorrhizum 'Spessart' or Epimedium perralchicum (AGM) 'Frohnleiten', says Crasemann. "This is more attractive and can show off a landscape architect's planting design skills. It has the added benefit of making people feel less inclined to walk over planting than mulch."
Another treatment, popular in continental countries such as France, is the use of geotextiles, he adds. New shrubs along roads are planted through membranes covering the soil. They keep the soil moist and allow rain through but rule out the use of ground-covering planting. Geotextiles also form good bases on which to lay gravel surfaces.
Jon Allbutt, a founder and former chair of the Amenity Forum, which was launched seven years ago to represent the amenity sector on pesticides, says landscape architects and specifiers need to be extra vigilant. Pin-sharp maintenance of streetscapes and grasslands will become even more crucial.
"I can see a return to good old-fashioned mulching, but there will need to be tighter design and maintenance specification. Once-upon-a-time you could get away with 75-100mm of mulch and walk away. Now you will have to apply and 'maintain' 100mm and you can forget bark chippings. You'll be expected to look at recycled green waste.
"Maintenance crews will have to read contract wording very carefully because some firms will be caught out. There is a big difference between 'apply' and 'maintain' weed control, and that makes an even bigger difference with costings. Because production and grading of mulch are more sophisticated, you have to make extra sure you choose correctly - some mulch is too fine."
Landscape architects, meanwhile, will have to "wake up" on issues of paving. Allbutt, who is also principal consultant at horticultural health and safety firm Jon Allbutt Associates, sees red - as well as weeds - every time designers use small pavers. "These are almost designed with the build up of silt in mind and are perfect havens for weeds." Gravel on a firm base, often specified by the National Trust and English Heritage, offers a better weed deterrent.
A good way for designers to grasp more fully the upkeep implications of their creativity is to rope in maintenance experts at an early stage of the design process. Once again, he says, landscape architects and specifiers need to shake themselves out of their slumber on how surfaces will be maintained in this harsher anti-pesticide world.
"It would be madness for 2010 to be a year of landscape conferences and workshops, which failed to address these issues, and a further indication that designers have not woken up to what has to be a primary concern. Unless they address these issues of maintenance they will be presenting us with impossible challenges."
Peter Wilder, a partner at London-based landscape architect Macfarlane Wilder, says the squeeze on pesticide use needs to be met by physical and philosophical change. Designers must rely more on native species - plants that can withstand our climate and indigenous pests.
"But clients need to change their expectations," he adds. "Less pesticide use will probably mean fewer pristine landscapes, and clients will have to get used to the idea of imperfect looks. Meadow grasses will be the in-thing instead of closely-grown swards of turf and neatly trimmed ornamental plants on the verges or beds at roadsides."
Less maintenance, he points out, has other benefits. Many health problems associated with pesticides are caused by chemicals entering cuts in the flesh caused by maintenance crews pruning plants. Minimising upkeep and cutting regimes should mean fewer cuts and bruises and more emphasis on biodiversity and naturalism.
This perception change is being fostered above the streets and on rooftops by Macfarlane Wilder. It is working on roof landscapes that are moving away from clipped lawns to ones hosting crops such as wheat and corn. This makes people more aware of the changing seasons and the passing of time in the landscapes of urban areas.
"By encouraging people to sow seed and harvest, you change the emphasis from one of focusing on pristine lawns, high-maintenance surfacing and something that is pretty to look at from an amenity viewpoint. Instead, you have landscape that is more organic and free-flowing," says Wilder.
"There are a lot of agenda-changing landscapes that challenge ideas of what design should look like and how it should function. This kind of thinking will be needed on the streets of Britain as well as the rooftops, parks and playgrounds."
Wakefield Council pesticide lead operative Gary Harland also sees the need for new thinking and feels the public, landscape architects and local authorities need to be educated on what to expect from their landscapes. Weed-free streets will be harder to achieve as the pesticide regime gets tougher and Joe Public needs to understand this.
Landscape architects must realise that pretty brick setts are a nightmare to weed and need to think of more intelligent ideas on hard surfacing. Local authorities, for their part, must engage more with groups such as the Amenity Forum and Northern Amenity Forum, both of which champion best use of pesticides (see box, page 27).
The latter is hosting a conference in York on 13 January that will focus on pesticides and the upkeep of hard surfacing. Tackling the issue of weeds, streets and pesticides in such an up-front, head-on manner will surely warm the hearts of Allbutt, Harland and others wandering which way the EU and its member states will go on pesticides.
Mole favours prior notification of the public before pesticides are sprayed on streets and would like to see this become mandatory. He insists that PAN UK is not calling for the abolition of pesticides. It wants the few "nasties" outlawed and better use of what's left. Rather than see the newly-published directive as a threat, local authorities should grasp it as a wonderful opportunity to sweep away some old thinking and bad practices.
"My sense from the amenity sector is it welcomes a lot of what's proposed because it should get rid of some of the cowboy practices," he says. "Better training and certification must be good and though it could make life harder for some, there is a lot in this directive that could have a positive impact on the sector."
Not least of the good spinoffs could be a big change in the use of glyphosate, he feels. Contractors and local authorities must get "their house in order" in the area of blanket spraying, Mole argues. If they do not, they risk losing the product altogether, which would be a disaster.
"You could reduce the amount of glyphosate used by 50 per cent overnight simply by banning the practice of blanket spraying and focusing instead on targeted spot applications," he points out. "This is not only good for the environment but would be in councils' longer-term interests because it would make it less likely that glyphosate would be taken out of use altogether."
BEST-PRACTICE CASE STUDY
Wakefield Council has been singled out as a best practice beacon for its weed control by the Northern Amenity Forum, a group of northern England councils that work together to try and formulate best practice in use of pesticides.
"Best practice means different things to different people, but the basics of applying pesticides in a safe and environmentally sound way are very similar," says Gary Harland, the local authority's pesticide lead operative.
All pesticide applications in Wakefield are carried out by an in-house team from the environment services department, which blitzes roads and paths, school hard surfaces, parks and play areas. It also targets bowling greens, golf courses and football and rugby pitches.
Applications are overseen by a supervisor, who has a crop protection certificate from BASIS, the independent registration scheme for standards and certification for pesticides. But the team "strives to minimise" the use of pesticides in several ways, notes Harland.
Total herbicides, for example, are applied only from mid March to mid October because the time after this date is not an optimum-use period for spraying and could therefore be wasteful as well as environmentally damaging, he says.
"We also try to get by with a maximum of two glyphosate applications a year on hard surfaces and regularly use sweepers to minimise the build up of rubbish and debris. Though it is common practice to use four to six glyphosate applications in some areas, this increases the load on the environment."
Meanwhile, turf fungicides are used only when absolutely necessary and where disease pressure is greatest, such as on golf courses. Insecticides for roses and other ornamentals are used only for specific problems that cannot be solved in any other ways.
"Selective herbicides are rationalised in their use," says Harland. "Typically we spray around a quarter of our pitches and golf courses in a year. Spot treatment is used for fine-turf areas wherever possible, along with digging out odd weeds on bowling greens and similar areas."
Pesticides are stored mostly at one site in a secure store, built to guidelines set by the Health & Safety Executive and BASIS, and the main store is supervised by a BASIS-trained and certified storekeeper. Storage levels are constantly monitored and stock levels are audited bi-monthly.
Wakefield Council has 85 staff certificated to National Proficiency Tests Council PA1 and PA6A level, with 23 of those staff holding the PA2A certificate. Of these, 25 people spray pesticides on a regular basis and five are designated "pesticide operatives" for work on purpose-built quad weed sprayers.
Harland says financial constraints can "get the better of us" in areas of continuing professional development (CPD) and his authority would "welcome other methods of evidencing CPD provision, possibly by some kind of corporate membership that would keep costs lower".
That said, Harland reckons "we are doing our best to cover most areas of best practice in pesticides application".
DIRECTIVE ON SUSTAINABLE USE OF PESTICIDES
It has been several years in development, but the Directive on Sustainable Use of Pesticides was finally published by the EU on 24 November. Its stated aim is to "establish a framework for community action to achieve the sustainable use of pesticides".
The document introduces some measures already in place in the UK in statutory and voluntary forms, according to the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD), the former Pesticides Safety Directorate. But there will be major changes, including statutory provisions, putting some voluntary arrangements on an obligatory basis.
"The directive's provisions largely take the form of broad objectives rather than detailed prescriptions," says CRD policy adviser Grant Stark. "We strongly favoured this approach during negotiation because it provides flexibility for member states to adopt measures appropriate to their national circumstances."
He adds: "The key elements have been known for a while and the idea is twofold - to reduce the risks and impact of pesticide use on human health and the environment and to encourage the development and introduction of integrated pest management and alternative approaches to reduce dependency on pesticides."
New measures will be phased in over several years after the directive is adopted in 2011. Key elements include the need for member states to draw up national action plans; implement certification schemes for spray operators, distributors and advisers; introduce compulsory testing of application equipment; take measures to protect waterways; and promote integrated approaches to pest control.
The action plans will involve setting up targets, measures and timetables to reduce risks and the impact of use on human health and the environment. They will have to take account of social, health, economic and environmental impacts.
BASIS - www.basis-reg.co.uk
Chemicals Regulation Directorate - www.pesticides.gov.uk
National Proficiency Tests Council - www.nptc.org.uk
Northern Amenity Forum - www.northernamenityforum.org
PAN UK - www.pan-uk.org