By Scott Smith, Communications Director
Americans are ripping up their lawns like never before. For many, it comes down to the choice between sticking with monochromatic turf grass reliant on toxic pesticides and fertilizers or replacing that boring old lawn with colorful plantings of native flowers and shrubs that are much more friendly to pollinating bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife.
For others, especially homeowners in arid regions, the decision is all about saving precious and ever-more costly water. Keeping a lawn green can take up to 75% of a household’s water consumption, according to a study of homes across the U.S. conducted by researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Grass is, after all, America’s largest single irrigated crop.
Alarmingly, some municipalities in California hoping to cut wasteful water consumption are writing fat checks to homeowners to remove their grass lawns and replace them with swaths of artificial turf.
Earlier this year, as drought conditions in California intensified, Rancho Mirage’s city council voted to fund $2 million in grass removal rebates. Local resident Richard Baker of Rancho Mirage leapt at the chance to trade in his grass lawn for cash at $6 a square foot, telling CNN “with a jubilant laugh” that it was a “no-brainer” decision. “Water agencies will pay Baker a little more than $24,000 for more than 4,000 square feet of lawn removed,” the report continued. “Baker replaced the grass, paying $42,000 for artificial turf and labor,” CNN reported.
Using taxpayer dollars to install environmentally ruinous synthetic grass is no laughing matter.
While natural grass absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen, artificial turf does the opposite by releasing CO2, methane, and a variety of chemicals. “Chemical analysis of artificial turf conducted at Yale University found 96 chemicals, 20 percent of them probable carcinogens. In addition, artificial turf contains highly toxic PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” linked to lower childhood immunity, endocrine disruption and cancer,” argues Environmental Defence, a U.K.-based organization. “Children are especially vulnerable to inhalation, ingestion and dermal absorption, as they are lower to the ground and breathe more quickly.”
Invented in 1965 by Monsanto and patented in 1967 under the name “Chemgrass,” artificial turf was touted as an ideal surface for athletic fields, especially for newly created indoor stadiums such as the Astrodome in Houston, epicenter of the nation’s petrochemical industry. Problem was, Astroturf was hated by the players, who likened the impact to falling on concrete. “Turf toe” entered the lexicon, and other players suffered even more gruesome injuries when their cleats snagged on the synthetic fabric. These problems remained as artificial turf spread outdoors and under the summer sun, where on-field temperatures can spike as high as 160° F, causing additional risk of dehydration, heatstroke and thermal burns, especially among youth athletes.
In the decades since, artificial turf makers rolled out new versions, featuring additional layers of plastic “infill” and often topped with crumbled bits of ground-up tires to soften the blows of falling on what coaching great Vince Lombardi called “fuzzy cement.”
They’ve paved paradise…with plastic grass
The global market for artificial turf was $2.5 billion in 2016 and is expected to rise to $5.8 billion by 2023, reports The Guardian. In the U.S., there are now about 16,000 synthetic turf fields, with as many as 1,500 installed annually, according to the Synthetic Turf Council.
As schools and athletic facilities step back to assess the human health risks, environmental concerns and the cost of synthetic turf fields, the fastest-growing segment of the market is now the one for residential landscapes and public spaces such as parks and playgrounds, with new synthetic grass options “formulated specifically for use with lawns, areas where children and pets play,” the Synthetic Turf Council blithely claims.
Like junk food, artificial turf may seem like a convenient, easy fix. But think again. Astroturf is billed as maintenance-free, yet it still requires upkeep and needs to be replaced in as few as 10 years. It’s costly to install – $20 per square foot – and near impossible to recycle once it does break down.
The plastic used in the production of artificial grass is usually petroleum-based, which means that its manufacture contributes to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The fake product also remains in the ground forever once it ends up in a landfill. The average athletic field contains approximately 40,000 pounds of plastic carpet and 400,000 pounds of infill, according to The Atlantic, which tallied up the amount of fake turf detritus disposed every year in the U.S. at 330 million pounds.
Worse, the little black pellets often used in combination with Astroturf are in large part made from old tires. “These pellets always find a way outside the field due to rain or hitchhiking in one’s shoe, which contributed to local plastic pollution,” says Circling the News, in a report on the hidden dangers of artificial turf. “Like it or not, pieces of plastic lawn break down and contaminate our soils for centuries regardless of being recycled.”
Then there are the ill effects on soil health and wildlife. Placing a dense plastic barrier on top of compacted ground effectively sterilizes the soil beneath by allowing no organic matter to accumulate. “Even a perfectly kept lawn with no weeds has a base layer of wildlife value because it’s a good home to millions of soil dwelling critters, most so microscopic we can’t see them,” writes sustainable gardening expert Jack Wallington. “Worms, grubs and grass eating caterpillars, slugs and snails all feed birds, too.”
Fake turf prevents rain from percolating down into the soil, often causing runoff problems or creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes while stagnating atop the turf. Astroturf also contributes to the Island Effect, which happens in urbanized areas that become warmer than the surrounding cityscape. The heat from the day gets trapped in the turf and can stay warmer overnight, the opposite of gardens, trees and even grass, which help cool the environment.
Touting fake turf as an eco-friendly alternative to grass lawns is truly fake news.