Why Artificial Turf Is Never the Answer
In recent years, there has been much discussion about the harm caused by traditional neatly mown grass lawns, especially those maintained in areas where this would never have been the natural ground cover.
This has led some to answer with the proposal that artificial turf is more “eco-friendly” than a grass lawn. As a garden designer and sustainability consultant, I always offer the same response—artificial turf is never the answer.
Problems Artificial Lawns Seek to Solve
Monoculture grass lawns are the scourge of modern neighborhoods around the world. All too prevalent, these neatly mowed, heavily watered, and often non-organically managed spaces are, in a sense, no more natural in many cases than the artificial turf some choose to replace them.
Nonnative lawn grasses proliferate. And the lack of biodiversity in a grass-only lawn means that these spaces are virtual deserts, practically devoid of life.
Add in excessive water use, fuel/energy use in their mowing, and the use of environmentally damaging (and potentially human-health impacting) herbicides, and it is clear to see that a neatly mown grass lawn is not a sustainable or eco-friendly choice.
Convenience is often cited as a reason for having a neat grass lawn. But these intensively managed garden areas are not truly all that convenient and do rather take a lot of upkeep for a gardener.
Both those looking to avoid excessive resource use and environmental damage and those looking for a more low-maintenance and convenient choice often consider using artificial turf to solve those issues.
Why Artificial Turf Is Not a Sustainable or Eco-Friendly Choice
A neatly mowed grass lawn is, of course, far from ideal. But replacing that ecological disaster zone with another is not the answer.
In order to understand why artificial grass is a problem, we need to look at its true costs—both through its materials and manufacture, and while in use. Just some thorny areas to contend with include the following:
- Materials to make the synthetic materials of artificial turf are typically derived from finite and polluting fossil fuels (which, as Treehugger readers will surely be aware, we must keep in the ground).
- Recycled plastics (and old tires) are sometimes used in artificial turf to limit virgin plastic use. But the recycling process still leaves a lot to be desired, with potentially high emissions and non-renewable energy use. And products using recycled material typically cannot be recycled further, leaving us with a massive waste problem down the road.
- Recycled materials potentially cause pollutants to enter the surrounding ecosystems. Even if heavy metals and other toxins and contaminants are low enough not to pose a risk to people, they can upset vulnerable ecological systems around us. And the shedding of microplastic particles is also a growing concern.
- Even a monoculture grass lawn sequesters some carbon and does allow for at least some natural growth and regeneration of plants and soil. Artificial soil eliminates any potential for nature’s cycles to continue and decimates the fragile web of life present in the soil below. It degrades the soil to a massive degree and not only prevents plant growth while it is present, but also makes it far more difficult for plants to grow in an area in future by potentially creating near dead zones in the soil below it.
- Artificial lawns can save water compared to a neat grass lawn in more arid areas. But their installation also often disrupts and damages natural water flow and infiltration, especially if an impermeable substrate is used. They can prevent water from passing freely into the soil below, and since soil is damaged and organic matter won’t accumulate within it, water won’t infiltrate or drain as it would in a more natural system. And this can cause a range of problems to arise over time.
- Artificial lawns provide even less for wildlife and the natural ecological function of a garden than a neatly mown lawn.
Better Solutions to Consider
The problem lies in the fact that people considering artificial turf have often set up an artificial either-or question when, in fact, neither a monoculture grass lawn nor an area of artificial turf is the answer.
In areas with sufficient rainfall, native grasses and wildflowers can be used to create a typical lawn that is more like a meadow or prairie—one that can be mowed far less frequently, which can easily be managed organically, which requires less water, and which provides many of the same functional benefits as a traditional imported grass lawn, giving open areas for recreation and play.
Open areas can also be covered with low-growing herbs (chamomile, thyme, etc.) or other native plants, rather than with grasses. The plants used to create an open area with low-growing or low-mown plants will, of course, depend on where you live and the conditions to be found there.
But even in the most arid areas, natural plants combined in the right ways—perhaps alongside other strategies like the creation of earthworks features and the use of mulches to create biodiverse, holistic systems—are the answer.
Remember to consider not only the harm that artificial turf can cause, but also the benefits that choosing a holistic design with the right plants for the right places can bring. These are also a big part of the reason why I always advise my design and consultancy clients that artificial turf is never the right solution to the problems they are looking to solve.