Artificial turf, also called fake grass or synthetic lawn, has come a very long way from its tacky Astro Turf looks of the 1960s. An off-shoot of the carpet industry, it now is almost undistinguishable from real grass, thanks to technological advances. The artificial grass industry proudly sells its product as being eco-friendly since it doesn't need to be watered, mowed or fertilized. But is it really eco-friendly or is this claim another instance of greenwashing? If you have been thinking of having synthetic grass installed in your garden with that reassuring reason in mind, make sure you know all the facts before making a final decision.
Can A Plastic Product Be Eco-Friendly ?
Artificial grass is made of plastic, (often a polyethylene and polypropylene blend), or nylon, a petroleum-derived synthetic fabric. In this interesting video, you can see how white plastic pellets are melted and mixed with green pellets for color, along with chemical stabilizers and additives, and then pulled into strings that are sewn into a backing made out of mesh fabric and synthetic sheeting. Finally, a coating roller applies adhesives to the backing of the turf, and after dry-up time, rolls of fake grass are ready for installation. The infill that is later added for cushioning purposes, is often made of rubber crumb, itself made out of recycled tires. For large projects, PVC pipes might need to be installed for proper drainage, too.
Some companies seem to have the environment in mind more than others. For example, ForeverLawn offers a line of grass blades made from recycled plastics, and with a backing layer made from soybean plants and recycled plastic bottles. That type of grass is marketed as being 100% recyclable, and is more expensive than other conventional grasses. SYNLawn also makes use of soybeans to manufacture its backing.
That said, one might wonder why water, soil and herbicides are used to grow a food crop like soybeans for the ultimate purpose of our aesthetic needs. Also, 90% of soybeans planted in the US is genetically modified, and as such comes with a number of environmental concerns. Moreover, the cost and a lack of infrastructure are an issue with the end-of-life recycling of artificial turf. In other words, most artificial lawns will end up in a landfill.
Whether fake grass is made of recycled or virgin materials, its manufacturing is a very energy intensive process, during which greenhouse gases are emitted. Natural grass is often accused of necessitating high quantities of fertilizing and gas-mowing, two activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions, but according to a research conducted by Berkeley's Laboratory For Manufacturing And Sustainability, artificial turf releases more greenhouse gases in its production, transportation and processing than the maintenance of natural turf.
Lots of Gray Around This Green Product
Numerous governmental agencies have conducted studies to assess the material safety and environmental toxicity of synthetic grass. Some of them have resulted in the removal of lead out of artificial turf, as its amount far exceeded safe health limits. However, there are many other chemicals present in artificial turf that have not been sufficiently researched yet and several potentially harmful situations might occur.
Indeed, the crumb rubber infill of artificial turfs contains polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phthalates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), zinc, iron, and more. While some of those components have been deemed safe, others, such as zinc, are of particular concern in terms of water contamination and ground-dwelling organisms. Also, the antimicrobial agent Alphasan, used to repel mold and bacteria, is a silver-based additive which, although safe for humans, birds and mammals, is very toxic in the aquatic environment. Since it is recommended to hose down artificial lawn to dust it off and clean it, it is fair to assume that some of those silver ions will end up in waterways and oceans where they will harm fish and bioaccumulate. If fake grass was to replace most of America's 40 million acres of real, tended lawns, the impact on our waterways could be serious.
Widespread use of artificial lawn could contribute to global warming too, as synthetic grass temperatures can be as high as 30 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit above the air temperature. Off-gassing is also thought of occurring during the artificial grass lifecycle, which is currently about 10 years. Additionally, as plastic photodegrades, i.e. breaks down under sunrays, small, microscopic elements can be swallowed and/or inhaled by humans and other species, and enter our food chain, too.
At this stage, we don't know enough about the reactions and consequences of the various chemicals used in artificial grass on our health and the environment, from its manufacturing point to the end of its life. As such, we are conducting an experiment on ourselves, one which might end up being relatively innocuous, or not.
Alternatives to Synthetic Lawns
Until the American synthetic grass industry can sell an entirely recyclable and zero percent pollution product that does not make use of scarce resources like water, artificial grass should probably not be preferred to natural grass. Instead, we need to understand why we want lush, green lawns. According to Sue Reed, author of Energy-Wise Landscape Design, lawns indicate good citizenship and social standing. In the early 1900s, Americans "started wanting to imitate the English lawn" that was kept beautifully watered by abundant rainfall and nicely clipped thanks to flocks of sheep, and "had to have this symbol of wealth and status" instead of the regular yard used for herbs, food crops, and chickens. Nowadays, in areas of the US where the climate is drastically different from the English one, luscious lawns are starting to indicate ecological abuse.
Before looking into synthetic grass, seriously consider other, eco-friendlier and natural options:
- organically maintained lawns mowed with push reel mowers and fertilized with compost, to reduce CO2 emissions;
- low-water eco-lawns;
- other drought-tolerant ground covers such as clover or rock gardens
If you need to cover only a small area in your garden and the above options are not possible, then artificial grass might be the solution for you. But let's not lure ourselves into believing that it is eco-friendly: it won't fool butterflies and other insects and birds that enhance our garden experience.
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