Fake grass may be green in color, but it has a devastating environmental impact and maintenance you might not expect.
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Fake grass may be green in color, but it has a devastating environmental impact and maintenance you might not expect.

To a lifelong gardener, replacing real grass with fake lawn is nothing short of criminal. To anyone who’s spent any time around real plants, it definitely does not look like real grass. And the thought of covering a yard with a vast plastic shroud made from petroleum products, that chokes the life out of a living soil, rubs up against everything a gardener, never mind an organic gardener, holds dear.

As the cost of artificial grass has come down and the look has become more realistic (to some), you might be tempted to pull up your lawn or a section of it, and replace it with fake turf. But there are serious environmental implications you should consider before doing so. Be forewarned: regardless of marketing claims, artificial lawns are not eco-friendly nor are they maintenance-free.

Why landscaping with fake grass is definitely not green

Artificial grass is made of plastic.

Plastic grass is made from fossil fuels (derived from oil and/or natural gas) and its manufacturing emits carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Household plastics can be recycled, but artificial turf is almost impossible to recycle at this time (see below).

Artificial turf blocks access to soil and food for living creatures.

Bees, insects, worms, and mammals serve important purposes in a living soil. Native bees burrow in the soil and earthworms – some of whom live only in the top 60cm of soil – depend for food on the top layers where organic matter collects. If the soil is blocked from above by artificial grass, no organic material can mix with it. That means there is no food for the beneficial creatures that normally live in your soil.

Additionally, pollinators native to your area normally nest in the soil. Without access, these creatures will starve or if possible, move to a natural turf landscape or a garden with open space. And if you like watching birds from your window, you’ll be doing less of it with a fake lawn. Since there will be no insects or earthworms in the soil to feed on, birds will head elsewhere for food. You might see a few if you have bird feeders installed, but then you’ll have to perpetually clean up seed and bird poop off the plastic grass. In a time of dramatic decline in native insect species and birds, we need more habitat for them, not less.

Artificial grass is NOT maintenance free.

Leaves that fall from trees onto artificial grass will need to be cleaned up, as will animal droppings and other organic debris. That means the artificial grass has to be cleaned regularly, including after your pet does their “business”. Then there is the ambitious gopher or mole to contend with who decides she wants to chew through your plastic grass from the soil up. Not a nice look and expensive to fix.

Artificial grass does not manage storm water.

Manufacturers tout the permeability of their plastic mats under their plastic grass, but rain will run off of artificial grass almost as fast as it does off a paved street. Water simply cannot penetrate the soil beneath it to any significant degree. The storm water runs into storm drains, depriving local waterways and aquifers of a much needed resource. This is problematic in so many ways at a time when we need more natural surfaces to manage storm water, not less. While it’s true you don’t have to water an artificial lawn, you also don’t have to water a natural lawn as often as you think.

Artificial lawn installers replace topsoil with sand.

Sand is used to provide a stable bed and a smooth surface underneath the plastic grass. Do we need to say how environmentally awful it is to remove topsoil and replace it with sand? Soil stores carbon (CO2) and removing it releases carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

Artificial lawn is installed over a layer of sand after topsoil is removed.

Artificial lawns can become scorching hot in summer.

In an era of extreme climate change, this should be the one reason alone you forego “modernizing” your lawn. Sunlight bakes plastic grass to scorching temperatures rivaling a sidewalk in peak summer. Artificial turf is notorious for burning dog and cat paws, not to mention any other wildlife that may wander across it. Some owners report the smell of burning plastic in summer heat too!

All plastics degrade and add to the microplastics problem.

Over time, sunlight, rain, and foot traffic will degrade an artificial lawn. Slowly, the plastic shreds and breaks down into microplastics (tiny shards of plastic), adding to this significant environmental problem. PFAS chemicals (like the chemicals in Teflon), used in the “grass”, do not break down in the environment and accumulate in the human body. They’ve been nicknamed “forever chemicals”. PFAS chemicals also happen to be in the pelletized rubber backing. A different product called crumb rubber is usually used for the infill (between the grass and the plastic mat underneath). This is made from recycled auto tires, contains heavy metals, and is notorious for breaking off and entering the environment.

Artificial turf is notoriously difficult to recycle and most ends up in landfills or dumped in lots.

What happens to fake grass when it’s life is over?

You can’t re-seed an artificial lawn like you can a real one, but manufacturers claim you can recycle it. Specialist recycling plants need to do this – it’s not like your fake lawn can be included curbside with your plastic bottles on recycling day. Unfortunately, most artificial turf is sent to a landfill, as recycling this material is extremely difficult. Read more about the problem with recycling fake turf in The Atlantic.

Is there ever a reason to use artificial turf?

While we can’t imagine ever using it to replace a living lawn, artificial grass might be useful to replace or overlay concrete or asphalt (but the heat in summer would be extraordinary). It also might be used in indoor settings where the look of grass is needed but natural light and irrigation is lacking. This of course ignores the potential health implications of ingesting microplastics and heavy metals (see above).

If you have a real eyesore you’re thinking of covering…

You may have a problematic corner of your living lawn you’d like to green up or an area with poor soil that’s not capable of supporting grass. Think about lawn alternatives for these spaces, not fake grass. You also should get a soil test done to see what the actual problem is. The money you spend installing and maintaining artificial turf can be used instead to improve your soil and install native trees and shrubs that will cool and beautify your property and manage stormwater. And probably at a much lower cost.

Now you might argue that artificial lawn doesn’t have to be mowed, which reduces the use off fossil fuels. Yet fossil fuels were used in the manufacture of your artificial lawn. You might also claim that artificial lawn needs no pesticides or herbicides, so that makes it environmentally friendly. This would be true if every lawn required chemicals. But they rarely do, regardless of marketing hype.

Sources: Why fake grass is far from green in ways you might not guess, The Guardian; Turf it out: is it time to say goodbye to artificial grass?, The Guardian; Why We Don’t Recommend Artificial Grass for Most People, New York Times.

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