Hundreds of Victorian home gardeners angry and out of pocket after using toxic compost from major recycler Suez
Feb 14 2021
Some time in October last year, a batch of commercial compost left a Suez recycling facility in Melbourne, bound for garden centres in central Victoria and Melbourne.
Within days, it had been combined into soil mixes, and sold to backyard gardeners planting their summer veggie crops.
Within weeks, many of those crops were dying.
“Nothing survived,” said Kelly West, who lives in the northern Melbourne suburb of Reservoir.
In her front yard are two barren tubs that were supposed to be a thriving vegetable patch for her neighbours to harvest and enjoy.
“We were pretty excited about these beds. We had zucchini, squash, tomato, eggplant, and radishes around the edges … it’s really disappointing,” she said.
Her backyard patch died too. But when Kelly mentioned it to a friend, she soon discovered she wasn’t the only one who had lost their summer crop of veggies.
She’s now one of more than 240 members of a Facebook group started just a few months ago in central Victoria by local gardeners who have experienced exactly the same thing.
Low concentrations of herbicides can have devastating results
The garden damage has prompted an Environment Protection Authority probe, and tests from Suez.
Experts believe the Suez compost was contaminated with a powerful herbicide that somehow wasn’t removed in the composting process.
It wasn’t picked up in testing, but even at low concentration it can have a devastating impact on gardens.
Clare — who’s been a gardener for 40 years in central Victoria — was one of the first to raise the alarm in September after buying a load of soil from a local garden centre.
“After a couple of weeks, the leaves on my broad beans were curling — then the whole plant just became very twisted,” she said.
“I had never ever seen anything like that before. They didn’t flower or produce any beans. And then they just yellowed and died.”
So did her tomatoes, capsicum, and eggplants.
To make it even more perplexing, some plants — like sweet corn, and brassicas like broccoli and cabbage — were not affected at all.
When Kelly and Clare went back to their garden centres for answers, they didn’t get far.
Kelly’s supplier in Melbourne told her to take it up with Suez.
Clare’s attempts to reach her central Victorian garden centre by phone and email were ignored.
“Initially, my thing was to alert them to a problem,” she said.
But many have. Some say they’ve have lost thousands of dollars in soil and seedling costs, to say nothing of the lost produce, and the simple enjoyment of growing their own food.
‘This pops up all the time’
The toxic substance is probably a powerful broadleaf herbicide, according to Chris Williams, a lecturer in Urban Horticulture at Melbourne University.
“Anecdotally, this pops up all the time,” he said.
Dr Williams has seen it firsthand, when plants at the University’s Burnley campus died the same way three years ago.
He says he is often sent emails from former students asking him about why certain vegetables aren’t growing, and says the symptoms are exactly the same.
He believes the contamination at Burnley came from pea straw treated with horse manure.
“Livestock are eating pasture that’s been treated with these chemicals, which goes straight through them to the manure, and doesn’t break down,” he said.
Phenoxy acid herbicides are sold in variations like aminopyralid, clopyralid, picloram, and triclopyr. They are restricted to agricultural and commercial use, but can find their way into green waste used to make compost.
“Then people are unwittingly putting them onto their home gardens, and they’re getting deformed crops as a result,” said Dr Williams.
Both Suez and the Victorian Environment Protection Authority have been investigating the cluster of complaints, and have commissioned soil tests by the independent lab SESL.
Some samples have found traces of the herbicide, while others have not.
Clare’s garden centre in central Victoria has written to its customers saying soil samples have come back clear. Suez also says testing shows its organic compounds are in line with EPA standards.
But it’s not that simple.
SESL’s senior soil scientist in Victoria Declan McDonald said the herbicide can cause problems in concentrations as low as a few parts per billion, which is too low for some labs to detect.
“We haven’t been able to identify the smoking gun yet — but there’s been lots of sound of gunfire,” he said.
The EPA said: “There could have been an issue with product control either from the original supplier or during mixing at the shop, though it is not possible to conclusively prove that.”
Clare is no doubt. She set up a series of test pots in her greenhouse containing samples from the four batches of soil she’d bought, and one with soil from her own backyard. It was the only one that survived.
And it’s now apparent this contaminated batch is not a one-off event. Kelly said her problems began with a load of soil bought in March last year, also sourced from Suez.
For gardeners like Clare and Kelly — and many more like them — it’s not clear who to complain to for a refund, or what to do with the toxic soil in their gardens.
“Do we cover it all in plastic? Do we get it removed? Maybe it’s leaking into the rest of our soil. We really don’t know,” Kelly said.
Clare spread the soil in two rows at the back of her property. In the four months since, nothing has grown in them — not even weeds.
If your plants aren’t growing, it might not be your fault
The EPA has passed the matter on to Consumer Affairs Victoria, which says it is aware of the complaints and is looking into the matter.
Suez told the ABC it has “ceased the sale of its composts until new batches are deemed clear of any unnecessary additives,” but did not answer questions on how it plans to deal with requests for compensation or soil removal.
Even when — or if — gardeners get refunds, the scale of this contamination incident means the issue is unlikely to go away.
In the UK, and parts of the US, public campaigns in the 2000s led to restrictions on the use of phenoxy acid herbicides in agriculture.
But in Australia, the issue is almost unknown outside the industry.
Dr Williams says that may be because gardeners — especially novices — may have no idea what is causing the problem.
“They’ll think, ‘I haven’t used enough mulch, I’ve haven’t used enough compost’. But in this case, it’s very clear you have these deformities caused by residual herbicide.”
Kelly says she simply hopes it doesn’t put people off gardening, or using organic materials like compost.
“I really feel for COVID gardeners who have picked it up during the lockdown and really got into their gardening. Because it’s such a fantastic thing to do, mentally and physically,” she said.
“They may not realise that it’s not their fault that their plants aren’t growing, and that might then make them give up on gardening. So I think it’s really important for people to know that there’s more to this.”