The grass might be greener on the other side, but is it more eco-friendly?
Astro-turf first appeared on the scene in the 1960s, around the same time that plastic carrier bags (the ones being banned around the world now) were becoming popular. Back then, sports clubs rolled it out under the premise that it was a durable, all-weather alternative to natural grass, but recently it’s become a hit among gardeners looking for low maintenance, a mud-free lawn that stays a vivid shade of green all year around. These days, despite the general consensus that plastic is doing bad things to our environment, the plastic grass market is booming and is set to be worth $5.8bn by 2023.
“Essentially, we’ve been sold the idea that grass isn’t green,” says lawn specialist David Hedges-Gower, who is behind a petition demanding regulations be introduced. Lawn companies advertise fake grass as “eco-friendly” as it requires no watering and means you can retire your lawnmower (although mowing is being replaced by hoovering in some cases). However, in recent years conservationists have raised the alarm over what our preference for fake plastic lawns is doing to biodiversity.
So, before you dig it up, here are five reasons to love your lawn.
Plastic isn’t fantastic, but plants are
Plastic lawns are typically made from polyethylene, polypropylene and nylon, materials that rely on the extraction of fossil fuels. The end result is a product that is non-biodegradable, rarely recyclable and contributes to our warming planet.
According to European Commission estimates, some 51,000 EU football pitches could be releasing tens of thousands of tonnes of microplastics every year, something we know to be damaging to sea life. In contrast, natural grass acts as a carbon sink. Scientists have shown that grasslands could be more adept at capturing greenhouse gases than trees as carbon dioxide is stored underground (rather than in the bark and branches), making it less likely to be released during drought and fires.
Paul Hetherington, communications director at Buglife stresses the importance of natural grass to our smallest earthly companions. “Artificial turf has a negative impact on invertebrates as it cuts off the supply of nutrients into the ground below, effectively creating a dessert devoid of worms, centipedes and all the other soil dwellers.”
Plastic grass also deprives ground beetles, grasshoppers, aphids and other sap suckers with the nourishment they’d typically get from natural grass, which in turn pushes out hedgehogs and birds. Artificial turf effectively puts up a “no entry” sign to wildlife, including the pollinators that are so vital to our own food system says Jon Traill, living landscapes manager at the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
Alongside lawns, The Times recently reported on a growing preference for artificial hedges, synthetic shrubs and faux trees. But while this fake flora and fauna might look pretty in situ, the ugly truth is it will only add to our plastic pollution problem once discarded. In nature, there is no waste. Natural grass can regenerate (even if it’s looking brown and scruffy) whereas artificial grass takes a one-way trip to landfill at the end of its life. Fair Warning has exposed fields of waste which are mounting up around the world, leaking toxins into the earth and causing fire risk hazards.
Natural lawns reduce flood risks
The RHS’ Greening Grey Britain survey has found a threefold rise in the number of front gardens that have been paved over, with nearly one in four UK front gardens completely given over to paving.
Hetherington says replacing natural grass with artificial or with concrete is bad for invertebrates and ultimately bad for people, particularly as Britain becomes increasingly vulnerable to flooding. “Both surfaces are less permeable to water than grass meaning more water runs off into often overloaded sewers, which leads to localised flooding,” he adds.
If it’s drought you’re worried about, just stop watering your current one. The RSPB says our lawns will survive without a regular drenching – they just might not look as aesthetically pleasing as the fake stuff.
A natural solution to the climate crisis
While a heavily fertilised, weed-free lawn isn’t going to score you any points with Mother Nature, there is another type of lawn that will – and some of you will be pleased to hear it’s low maintenance too.
Conservationists say rewilding could be the natural solution we need to reach net-zero emissions in the UK. Hetherington says we needn’t be worried about relinquishing control as a lawn that has minimal human interference will have plenty of minibeasts to do the work of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
Traill says even rewilding a small patch can make a difference. “Collectively our gardens are a vast living landscape, which offer an increasingly important refuge for our wildlife... As for us humans, well nothing really beats the smell and feel of lush green grass on a sunny day.”
The Wildlife Trust’s 5 top tips for a wildlife-friendly lawn
- Source native species-rich grass seed from garden centres to create a wilder lawn.
- Plant wildflower plug plants to add drama and habitat to an existing lawn.
- If you prefer to see some order, mow paths through longer grass. This allows you to get around the garden and highlights the drifts of your wild lawn.
- If you’re planting wildflowers don’t add any fertiliser, wildflowers thrive in poor soil.
- If you enjoy a regularly mown lawn, leave grass clippings on the grass after mowing. This will provide a ready source of nutrients for the worms below.