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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 28th May 2013

The one thing that keeps me fighting the constant war against weeds in the garden is the evidence I have that it is possible to achieve partial victories. When we moved here, twelve years ago, it was Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock, that dominated. I used to finish most sessions in the garden with ’10 docks’. That is, I would go around removing a minimum of ten dock plants.

After several years, I was finding that I couldn’t always find ten docks to remove - a clear sign that you can defeat the weeds. It still needs vigilance to make sure they don’t return but, to a reasonable degree, I can claim the garden to be largely dock-free.

But, in the frustrating world of gardening, the removal of the Rumex seems to have provided the opportunity for the Ranunculus acris, buttercup, to take its place. And they seem to be more widespread because I’ve found that ’20 buttercups’ is the essential way to end a session.

As a result, I fill up plenty of plastic sacks of these and other plants at this time of year requiring regular trips to the community recycling centre more easily described as the tip.

I have seen this sign before;

Sign about ragwort on fence  



Close-up of warning sign about ragwort 

But, yesterday, I’d got into conversation with the council employee on duty so I asked him what the sign was all about. As he explained, he could only repeat what he’d been told following a visit to the site by a minister from the Scottish government.

He had been told that ragwort was not to go into the garden recycling bin because the material was composted on a farm and there was the risk of seeds blowing onto farmland. He said it could not go into the landfill bin and he’d been instructed to tell anyone bringing ragwort to the tip that they must double bag it, seal the bags and take it to the main recycling facility – a 56-mile roundtrip. At the main centre, he said, they dug deep holes and buried the ragwort in the bags.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and if you are not see the Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, page for a list of postings) you’ll understand that I found this situation laughable, especially since, while this conversation was going on, some of the plants I was emptying into the skip were Symphytum, comfrey, a genus that produces pyrrolizidine alkaloids like those found in ragwort.

I decided to have a look and see how these rules matched up to the official published advice. I should say that I’m not interested, today, in criticising the hysteria based excesses of the guidance just in seeing how the guidance compares to actual practice. The Scottish government publication ‘The Scottish Government Guidance on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort’. Appendix 5 deals with disposal. It sets out that ragwort from agricultural land is defined as commercial waste and disposal must comply with the Waste Management Regulations. Ragwort from domestic premises is not subject to these rules and the document distinguishes between the disposal of small amounts and larger plant masses but without attempting to define the dividing line between the two.

The guidance says that ‘To avoid seed dispersal ragwort should only be transported in sealed bags or enclosed containers’. I don’t know whether having open bags in a car counts as an ‘enclosed container’ but the guidance makes it very clear that ragwort cannot be placed in the green waste skip. (This is based on the false notion that ragwort seeds blow long distances but, as I said, today I’m not interested in reviewing the guidance itself.)

Where the practice varies from the official guidance, however, is what to do with the ragwort that must not be put in the green waste skip.

The guidance says;

'Options for disposal include: composting; incineration; controlled burning and landfill. (emphasis added)'

So putting the ragwort in the landfill skip is perfectly OK.

It also says;

[Don’t] 'Transport ragwort unnecessarily'

That pretty much rules out the 28-mile trip to the main centre that people are being told they have to undertake.

And there is another ‘don’t’;

[Don’t] 'Dig, bury or plough into the ground'

Suggesting that the council’s preferred final disposal method goes against the guidance. This seems to be another example of the sort 'risk aversion creep' we see so often these days. 'Could' becomes 'does' and 'may' becomes 'will'.

So, the procedure in place is actually not in line with the formal guidance. More importantly, however, the procedure in place is stupid. How likely is it that people will be willing to make the round trip to the main depot? How much more likely is it that they will go home, put the ragwort into a bag, tie the top and return to the tip and throw the bag into the landfill skip?

What is the chance that they might just either dump the bag at the roadside somewhere or empty out the ragwort over a fence into a field where it might have a real chance of causing poisoning?

I can’t help seeing the parallels between this and the drug control regime. Both are intended to prevent harm arising from potentially dangerous substances but both, in practice, increase the chance of harm. And both have been created by people with only limited understanding of the reality of the potential to cause harm.


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