Turf Wars: Is Artificial Grass the Ultimate Convenience or An Ecological Disaster?

Experts are arguing over the pros and cons of artificial grass – apparently there’s been a boom in installations during lockdown, with some companies reporting business up by 300 percent. But is a plastic lawn the ultimate convenience, or an ecological disaster?

A recent market report estimated that the global market for artificial grass will grow at 5 percent a year for the next five years. Supporters argue that artificial grass is easy to maintain, long-lasting, and suitable for play, while opponents argue that it’s bad for wildlife, contributes to flooding and has long-term negative effects on the environment.

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Maintenance problems

Artificial grass is particularly popular in areas with clay soil where a real lawn tends to wear away and become muddy. It’s normally laid over a stone base and can cost around £5,000 for an average-sized garden.

Artificial grass technology has moved on a lot since it was introduced in America in the 1960s. The short-bladed nylon ChemGrass, or AstroTurf, installed in the Houston Astrodome and other sports arenas looked artificial, but it solved a lot of maintenance problems.

Artificial grass made its way into gardens in the UK in the 1990s, particularly after it was used in a small percentage for relaying the turf at Wembley Stadium, and approved for use in a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show – a decision the organisers now regret.

Modern artificial grass tends to have longer blades with more variation in colour, though it can still be startlingly green. It can last for around 20 years and needs little maintenance, so it’s particularly popular with families where children play in the garden and would wear out a real lawn.

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Ecological consequences

It can also look very realistic; some manufacturers can even provide variations in colour tones for shady areas, crush-resistant yarns for high-traffic spaces, ‘dead grass’ infills for an authentic natural look, and even ‘mowing stripes’ to mirror the appearance of precision-cut and rolled-green lawn.

But critics say that the convenience of artificial grass is offset by serious ecological consequences.

There are, critics say, five main problems with artificial grass.

  • The first is the way it’s manufactured. The plastic extrusion process uses chemicals which may cause health issues. Sports pitches can also contain levels of lead, cadmium benzene, nickel, chromium and arsenic.
  • Then there’s the damage to garden ecosystems. Everything from earthworms and insects to moles and garden birds can rely on areas of grass, and it’s been suggested that the decline in butterflies may be partly due to delawning. Natural grass also absorbs dust and carbon dioxide and returns it to the ground, while artificial grass just accumulates it.
  • The third problem is flooding. Natural grass allows drainage, while artificial grass doesn’t allow drainage and causes pooling, which may lead to flooding.
  • The fourth problem is overheating. Sports pitches (though not gardens) are weighed down with a rubber crumb derived from car tyres, and can reach temperatures above 65C on hot days.
  • Finally, at the end of the life of the artificial lawn is the disposal problem. Most artificial laws contain two types of plastic bonded together, so they can’t be recycled an will probably end up in landfill. There are increasing numbers of reported cases of flytipping of artificial lawns.

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Border planting

After the ‘quirk’ of allowing artificial grass at the Chelsea Flower show, the Royal Horticultural Society has now made a firm stand against it, banning it from shows and removing it from gardens.

And Paul Hetherington, director at insect charity Buglife, says: “Artificial grass is bad for nature, it’s bad for wildlife. A lawn supports so many creatures. This plastic alternative supports no life forms whatsoever.”

Supporters claim that any negative ecological impact of artificial grass can be offset by planting in borders, and that the maintenance of natural grass itself has an environmental impact in the use of mowers, fertilisers and so on.

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Though at the moment the only specialist recycling facilities for artificial grass are in the Netherlands, there are plans to make the facility more widely available, and with improvements in technology recycling may not be so much of a problem.

Gardeners including Springwatch’s Joel Ashton suggest that if you don’t want to maintain a natural lawn, you could consider other options such as a low-maintenance wildflower garden (though try telling that to the football-mad kids).

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Garden thefts

But finally, you might want to consider the possibility that someone might roll up your artificial lawn and take it away – police in Woolton, Liverpool questioning a man about thefts from gardens found a stash of items including tables, fountains, planters and even an entire artificial lawn.

So experts will probably continue to argue over the pros and cons of artificial grass, with the boom in installations continuing, and some customers choosing convenience despite warnings about the ecological implications of installing a plastic lawn.

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