Non-chemical weed removal

Many UK grounds maintenance companies and county councils are re-examining the use of glyphosate herbicides and seeking non-chemical weed removal. This is happening amid the continuing debates on the effects of glyphosate. Greg Bedson reports 

The debate surrounding the use of Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the popular weedkiller Roundup, continues. Those lobbying against its use claim that it is a carcinogenic and harms insects and other wildlife, while those in favour of the herbicide argue that evidence suggests these findings remain inconclusive and that if used correctly, it is perfectly safe. 

Globally, glyphosate-based weedkillers are used more than any other herbicide with an estimated 6.1 billion kilos sprayed worldwide between 2005 and 2014. This could be set to change as governments introduce stricter legislations surrounding its use. Austria became the first EU member to ban glyphosate in July 2019. Restrictions are also in place in Italy, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. Germany is also moving towards a ban of the chemical by the end of 2023 amid concerns it is harming the insect population there. 

Cost effective solutions 

Putting environmental and health effects aside, the economic impact of using weed killers is to be considered. Glyphosate weedkillers are quick to apply, thus keeping the costly manual labour to a minimum
– particularly important to grounds contractors and councils having to manage large areas effectively. 

A study carried out on behalf of Monsanto in 2016, before it was acquired by Bayer, found that glyphosate is by far the most cost effective solution for controlling weeds. In an economic analysis of highway median weed control, for example, glyphosate was 275% less expensive than alternative methods that included multiple mowing events and alternative herbicides. 

The study also highlighted a key benefit of using glyphosate in managed turf areas including golf courses stating that, “in recreational environments that include managed turf grass, glyphosate applications to dormant turf allow undesirable species of weeds and grasses to be controlled. This allows golf course managers to cost-effectively renovate fairways without the need for total replacement.” 

This has been backed up more recently by Oxford Economics who looked at the costs of the potential non-renewal of glyphosate to the UK economy in 2017. One of their reports was on councils, finding total removal of glyphosate could increase household Council Tax bills by £7.80 for each of the 27 million households in the UK. 

In addition, those who favour the use of glyphosate suggest that many of the alternative solutions are all faced with their limitations. Post-emergent herbicides such as pelargonic acid will control small broadleaf weeds, but will only partially damage perennial and large annual weeds for instance. Other naturally occurring broad-spectrum herbicides and acetic acid- vinegar, all have similar limitations and thus aren’t necessarily a a commercially viable option. 

Herbicides such as pelargonic acid control small broadleaf weeds

Flame weeding can be effective in certain hardscape situations, but cannot be used where flammable materials may be present and many weeds, grasses, perennials and sedges will rapidly re-grow after application. 

Chemical free alternative 

There is however a product on the market, which claims to be “the easiest, most effective and most cost competitive alternative” to glyphosate. Foamstream – a herbicide-free alternative for weed, moss and algae control that is gaining interest across the landscaping industry as well as those involved in cleaning public areas and buildings. 

Killing weeds naturally
Foamstream can be used on all surfaces including artificial sports surfaces

Leo de Montaignac, a co-founder of Weedingtech, the company behind Foamstream, explains that the product was developed in 2011, as they discovered “organisations of all types would increasingly want non-chemical weed removal and an alternative to traditional chemical herbicides. Whatever your position on the safety of traditional herbicides, we believed organisations would increasingly want to reduce their use of traditional herbicides in built up urban areas and would therefore need a highly effective, safe and cost competitive alternative.” 

Unlike many other products on the market, Foamstream can also be used to deep clean and sanitise outside spaces (such as those outside hospitals, bus shelters and in playgrounds), remove chewing gum, and remove some graffiti, which according to de Montaignac makes “the commercial case for Foamstream very compelling.” 

Cooking the weeds 

Foamstream works by cooking the weeds it covers. The foam and hot water solution is a 99.5% water and 0.5% foam blend of natural plant oils and sugars which insulate the hot water, allowing effective heat transfer from leaf to root, killing the plant and stopping heat being wasted to the atmosphere. 

It can be used in all weathers, which is favourable among contractors and municipalities needing to plan their labour force effectively and minimise downtime which, with other methods, may occur as a result of undesirable weather. 

The process works to reduce total weed growth in an area by not only killing the weed, but also sterilising surrounding seeds and spores. It can be used on all surfaces, hard, soft, porous artificial and historical. It is a safe and hazard-free for the operator and safe for use around people, animals, delicate ecosystems and waterways. 

Foamstream is fast gaining a large customer base. In the UK its customers include Id Verde, The Eden Project, Manchester City Council, London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, Southern Water, and the Football Association. 

Naturally, those extolling the use of Glyphostate are not going to sit back and loose the debate. Mark Buckingham, corporate engagement leader at Bayer, fights back suggesting “’non chemical’ does not necessarily equal ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ as the carbon footprint of heat and electricity based methods is significant and often ignored in the debate,” he says. 

“For example manufacturers of the electric “Root wave” method have said a one operator unit burns 15 litres of diesel fuel per day to generate the necessary electric current.”

Buckingham also states that the vigorous testing Glyphosate is subject to, proves it is safe. 

“There is an extensive body of research on Glyphosate and Glyphosate-based herbicides, including more than 800 scientific studies and reviews submitted to U.S., European and other regulators in connection with the registration process, that confirm that Glyphosate and our Glyphosate-based formulated products can be used safely and are not carcinogenic.” 

Buckingham continues, “The EFSA, the U.S. EPA and other regulatory authorities around the world have comprehensively and routinely reviewed glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides for more than 40 years and their conclusions consistently support the safety of glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides when used as directed.” 

“Weed control methods like hot water/foam are not subject to EU regulation, they fall outside the remit of pesticide product legislation (Article 2 of EU Reg 1107). We know glyphosate is low risk for earthworms and bees for example, because applicants are required to submit scientific studies on these species for EFSA and other regulators to assess.” 

Read more on invasive weed control here

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