Pesticide-free cities are possible! But there's more to it than vinegar

| 9th May 2016
Staff at a Bristol primary school, a member of the Pesticide Safe Bristol Alliance, campaigning to keep glyphosate out of their school and other places where children play. Photo: via Harriet Williams.
Staff at a Bristol primary school, a member of the Pesticide Safe Bristol Alliance, campaigning to keep glyphosate out of their school and other places where children play. Photo: via Harriet Williams.
Bristol's decision to trial vinegar as a weedkiller in place of glyphosate certainly grabbed headline-writers' imaginations, writes Harriet Williams. But with a wide choice of proven chemical-free weed control strategies available, might this experiment be 'set up to fail'?
What we really need is a full and thorough trial of all available non-chemical weed control options conducted city-wide, including the 600+ housing estates that are routinely sprayed with glyphosate now.

We all enjoyed a good stink here in Bristol last month, as the national press seized upon Bristol City Council's new fad for spraying weeds with vinegar.

It's billed as an 'eco-friendly alternative' to herbicides, but sadly it's not one that is tremendously effective for weed control in large public spaces.

But behind the headlines, the real story is that citizens in Bristol and elsewhere are rejecting glyphosate - the world's biggest selling herbicide, described by the WHO as a probable human carcinogen - even as local authorities remain doggedly determined to use it.

The Council's fondness for vinegar, first described in a press release from our campaign group, the Pesticide Safe Bristol Alliance, was reported in the local paper then quickly took on a life of its own. My phone was soon buzzing with journalists on the hunt for an acrid haze hanging over Cotham, the part of the city where the Council is trying out vinegar as an alternative to glyphosate.

"I know this sounds shallow, but we really need an angry resident to make this work", one TV producer implored. Needless to say, none of the locals had noticed anything, but that didn't stop the entire city smelling "just like a fish and chip shop" by the time the last tabloid was done.

I'll take anything but glyphosate, thanks

So, has 'vinegar-gate' left us any the wiser about what local authorities should be using for weed control?

From our perspective at the Pesticide Safe Bristol Alliance, this storm in a condiment cap has at least helped raise the profile of what gets sprayed on our city's streets. And despite the sensationalist reporting, many readers saw through the fug to the core issue at hand - which is that the routine spraying of glyphosate and other toxic chemicals in public spaces has got to stop.

As one commentator on the Daily Mail website put it, "I would rather smell vinegar than catch cancer." This sentiment was echoed again and again, with surprisingly few readers springing to glyphosate's defense. It will be interesting to see how well retail sales of RoundUp and other glyphosate-based gardening products hold up as the row continues over its health impacts.

Our experience in speaking to people in Bristol is that many people are simply not aware that glyphosate is being sprayed in roads, housing estates, parks and play areas. When they do become aware, the vast majority of people support an outright ban on this practice, or much tighter restrictions on its use. In the latest results of our rolling online survey, only 8.6% of respondents agree that herbicide sprays are a 'wholly acceptable' means of weed control.

The survey has received several reports of mild to severe poisoning among cats and dogs that had licked herbicide-coated plants. It also shows that the Council is failing to give warning of sprays to take place, despite a promise to "make available full information" on pesticide use. Although half of respondents have seen sprayers at work in Bristol, only 1% have ever seen any kind of warning notice. The situation in other British cities may well be similar.

As one mother wrote to us, "I was with my toddler when I saw this machine driving down the pavement with a toxic sticker on the back. I was shocked that this was happening with no warning, and that my son was exposed to these chemicals."

Another respondent said: "I saw a family out last autumn innocently gathering fallen leaves, and felt obliged to advise them to keep clear of the sprayed areas. No signs anywhere that this was going to be done."

The spread of Pesticide-Free Zones

In Bristol and probably other cities as well, public opinion seems to be moving ahead of local authority practice. Our Pesticide Free Zone action - in which citizens pledge to avoid glyphosate and other harmful forms of pest control in their own outdoors space - is steadily gaining momentum, with over 300 gardens, allotments and driveways pledged thus far.

Likewise we hope to recruit schools health settings as Pesticide Free Zones. Given that children are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of pesticide exposure, we expected the handful of schools approached thus far to readily comply.

But this has not generally been the case, for reasons not entirely clear. In one instance, it was obvious that the head teacher and governors did not know whether pesticides were applied on play areas or not. If this is typical, it suggests that schools need to develop explicit policies on pesticide use within their ground maintenance teams.

Nonetheless, local authorities are still the primary target of most pesticide-free city campaigners, because of the large land banks that they control. It seems perverse that households are excluding pesticides from their own gardens, only to encounter these substances when they enter a public space.

This raises questions of choice and agency, as well as a social justice issue in respect of the 600+ social housing estates that are sprayed city-wide under the Council's second largest glyphosate contract. Unlike owner-occupiers, social housing tenants have no choice over whether children and pets are exposed to glyphosate in their immediate outdoors space or not.

Designed to fail?

So what does leadership by local authorities look like? Like other pesticide-free city campaigns in the UK, we are asking our Council to do two things - first, take glyphosate off the table, and second, come up with sensible alternatives for weed control.

This is not rocket science. It is being achieved by many other European cities and local authorities here would do well to draw on their experience. On both points, Bristol's dunking in vinegar falls short of the mark:

  • It applies only to a small area of the city, and leaves the door wide open to the return of glyphosate should the trial be deemed a failure.
  • At the same time it invites failure by choosing vinegar ahead of more credible technologies for safer weed control.
  • Worse still, large tracts of land will not receive any weed control at all as the Council's regular spray contractors down tools for the duration of the trial.

This is not what pesticide-free policies should look like. If anything smells fishy, it is the design of this trial. Has it - as Pesticide Action Network UK says - been "set up to fail"?

Many other effective alternatives exist, as PAN-UK point out, and are already in use in other European and UK cities. Indeed there are many hundreds of examples from around the world of towns and cities, both larger and smaller than Bristol, which have effective, sustainable, economic, non-chemical weed and pest control regimes in place. Pesticide-free is possible!

The Cotham trial could be a useful start, but what we really need is a full and thorough trial of all available non-chemical weed control options conducted city-wide.

Thanks to 'vinegar-gate', more people know that local authorities have a problem when it comes to dealing with plants in the wrong places. In Bristol and other urban areas, it can only be a matter of time before local politicians listen to public opinion and stop dousing our streets in unsafe chemicals.



Harriet Williams is a member of PlaySafe Bristol, part of the Pesticide Safe Bristol Alliance.

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