I never design gardens with fake grass for aesthetic, experiential and environmental reasons. That said, some of my clients do still choose to install it, as do some of my friends and family, which makes this blog post a tad awkward to write. I don’t mean to make people feel bad for choosing astro turf – I’m non judgemental about it but it’s important people understand exactly why it’s bad for the environment and not great for us, then we’re informed for future decisions. A recent Government and Parliament petition received over 10,000 signatures calling for its ban.
1) Artificial turf uses huge volumes of plastic
If you stop to think about all of the materials in your home and garden, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that uses so much plastic. Single use plastic straws have been banned and replaced by paper in the UK and are a good comparison to the plastic lawn although it feels different because the fake lawn is multiple use. I ran a quick calculation that you can do yourself whereby if a person used say, one disposable plastic straw a day for a year, over the course of 15 years that would be 21,900 straws for a family of 4 at 12kg of plastic. Looking at one product, fake grass weighs around 1.42kg/metre. Our little urban garden is around 35 square metres so if we were to cover half in plastic grass, that would be 24.85kg of plastic, still there after 15 years and over four times the amount of plastic that would exist if the two of us used a plastic straw every single day for that time. Equivalent to the amount of plastic in over 24,000 plastic straws for even a small piece of fake grass.
2) Plastic grass can’t or won’t be recycled
Astro turf is made from a variety of human made unnatural materials including polyethylene, polypropylene and nylon. These materials are built to last, potentially for centuries. While individually these components can theoretically be recycled, in reality this isn’t happening for fake lawns for the following reasons. First, the materials are often bound together making it impossible to separate them and therefore making it impossible to recycle, because recycling of the materials requires them to be separated and pure. Some products are made from just one material which means at least, theoretically they can be recycled. Secondly, they need to be clean to be recycled. After spending 5 – 10 years outside on top of soil and surrounded by planting, with people running and walking across it, the amount of debris they collect (like a densely packed broom) makes the material very hard to prepare for recycling. You can’t recycle plastics with contaminants in like soil and grit, which is why we’re supposed to rinse plastic before putting in the recycling bin. Thirdly, this is a specialist form of recycling, local councils certainly aren’t set up to recycle rolls of fake grass, they need to be sent away. At the time of writing, the number of specialist recycling plants was non-existent in the UK, that doesn’t even account for people organising to send it off (3 years since publishing this, one person has been in touch to tell me one recycling company has opened in the UK, though there is no data on numbers recycled vs numbers sent to landfill for the country). What will most people prefer, dumping it for free in the local tip or paying for it to be taken away and cleaned for recycling? Hopefully one day what exists can be recycled as we need the existing lawns to be recycled, but that doesn’t account for the remaining 14 points.
3) Pieces of plastic grass will pollute soils for centuries
Like it or not pieces of plastic lawn break down and contaminate our soils for centuries regardless of being recycled. With the best will in the world, individual blades of fake grass tear off and blow into planting areas or bare soil nearby. Although plastic takes decades or centuries to deteriorate, it does still deteriorate releasing microplastics into soils which find their way into soil micro organisms. We’re only just starting to understand this is happening and the damage it is causing to the natural world. Eventually we may be able to recycle the bulk of a plastic lawn but it will be impossible to extract microplastics from soil and soil life.
4) Astro turf has a big carbon foot print from manufacture, transport and installation
The processes involved in mixing, colouring and moulding all of the plastic releases carbon. In addition, further carbon is released from the energy used (i.e. from electricity production). Then you have to factor the carbon released from transporting these heavy rolls by lorry from the manufacturing plant to the customer, probably being first transported to a storage facility. Soil is a natural carbon store, especially with plants growing on it, slowly taking carbon from the atmosphere and putting it back into the plants and the ground (why people want to plant more trees – which is a problematic view in itself but a whole other discussion!) By digging out a real lawn which has carbon locked in it and the top 15-30cm-ish of soil, not only do you remove a large area of planting that is actively locking carbon into the ground, but you’re releasing all of that locked carbon back into the atmosphere. The top layer of soil is removed to put down a base of hardcore and sand, transported in, releasing exhaust gasses. Once the astro turf is in place, that’s it, that whole area stops locking carbon from the atmosphere.
5) Fake lawns look awful after only a few years
This gives them a very short shelf life in comparison to other hardlandscaping products. Despite manufacturers claiming they last for 10 – 20 years (which is still a short a life span for outdoor surfaces) in reality the pieces of plastic grass blades become worn down and squashed in the same way as carpets, although obviously the plastic is tougher for outdoor and rougher use.
6) Astro turf kills soil life beneath it
By creating a dense plastic barrier on top of compacted soil and sand, no garden material can reach the soil beneath it. Things like leaf litter and grass clippings, which may be in tiny amounts in a normal garden after mowing and tidying but still exist. Natural materials like this are essential for feeding soil organisms like worms and microscopic animals that keep soil healthy. This is little different to impermeable hard landscaping like patios but a really important point if you’re considering replacing a living lawn with a fake lawn. Even if you remove all clippings and leaves from a real lawn, real grass grows and dies back and rejuvenates every year. Roots grow and die, some leaves die and these form natural material drawn into the soil to feed soil life. I could go into great detail about why soil life is important because it’s the building blocks of our entire way of life; a simple example is birds picking out bugs and worms for food. Some astro turf will have worms beneath but this will be under a new laying or toward the edges where soil is richer from nearby planting. Over time, there will be nothing beneath fake grass for most soil life to survive.
7) Plastic deprives people from contact with a natural surface
This may sound really silly if you’re thinking of installing plastic grass, escaping a natural surface is probably one of the reasons you want it in the first place, but I urge you to think again. I actually feel this is one of the most important points on this list. Some of my favourite childhood memories are sitting on a soft lawn, hands on the grass, plucking a blade of grass to whistle with, or a daisy or dandelion flower, or a plantain leaf. That sense of touch and the smell of mown grass is such an important part of my life experience and remains so today. Swapping this natural element of a garden can make sense for stopping mud or saving time, but it deprives people of something much bigger and much more valuable – one of the main contacts with nature, especially important in urban areas. I feel sad at the thought of children growing up with fake lawns and everything they will miss in those early years as a result. Even getting a bit muddy or seeing a spider, all of these things are little life experiences that make us who we are.
8) Fake lawns have no wildlife benefit whatsoever
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. Worms, grubs and grass eating caterpillars, slugs and snails all feed birds too. I’m guessing you may be thinking “urgh I don’t want those on my lawn!” but you won’t see most of these most of the time – though I would encourage you to try and see the benefit and beauty of these little lives. A lawn with daisies and other flowering weeds go up in wildlife value ten-fold. The Plantlife charity found a lawn kept to around 10cm or thereabouts has even more weedy wildflowers and supports thousands more bees, hoverflies and other pollinators.
9) Looks – plastic lawns never sit naturally in any environment
This is the point that I guess is subjective and most people who think fake grass looks neat won’t like me saying: astro turf never looks like anything but astro turf. One of the reasons for having it often cited is that it’s used where real grass won’t grow, such as in full shade but that’s one of the reasons it doesn’t look right. It’s obvious it’s not supposed to be growing there. As astro turf improves its look, products that look increasingly like real grass come to the market that look more convincing but when laid still look like unnatural blocks of plastic grass. It’s the imperceptible things like blowing in the wind, the way it looks in rain, the smell, small imperfect patches or insects and birds – these little things all add up in our mind to point out this thing isn’t real due to their absence.
10) Plastic lawns can overheat in summer making them unusable
Plastic lawns retain heat from the sun more than a natural lawn, in some instances this can make them so hot that you can’t walk on them.
11) Fake lawns need cleaning and maintaining
As an unnatural surface that doesn’t recycle germs, dirt and other debris as a natural lawn would, you need to clean it. This includes brushing, washing and quite often, hoovering!
12) Some fake lawns can give friction burns
Not all to be fair, but one touch of fake grass will tell you that you or your children won’t want to skid across it with bare knees.
13) There are many alternatives for soft surfaces
In a number of designs for family gardens I’ve created we use a thick layer of bark chip in play areas and a real lawn for running around etc. There isn’t any need for a fake lawn, which is actually far harder a surface than natural bark chip. You don’t want children falling off a swing onto fake grass.
14) There are alternatives to fake lawns for flat surfaces for wheel chairs or people with poor balance
I can understand why people would want a fake lawn in this situation but again I personally would want to find a solution that doesn’t harm the environment and gives everyone the equal opportunity to experience a natural lawn or natural garden. A real lawn can be firm and flat if it’s maintained well and perfectly accessible to people in wheelchairs or people less sure on their feet. Around a real lawn, paths and patios can be laid for further access during wet weather or in winter. In fact, in accessible gardens I’ve designed we simply haven’t bothered with large lawns, instead having a good easily manageable flat lawn and then offering plenty of paths through larger plantings to touch and sit within.
15) Living lawns can grow in shaded plots
Obviously we have to be realistic because with too much shade, lawns really aren’t possible but there are shade tolerant grasses that can be used. Quite often when people say to me that their garden is too shaded, I actually just see before me poor maintenance. If it really were too shaded, I would just design in something else, such as woodland planting, not persevere with a fake lawn.
16) Maintenance of a real lawn is cheaper
I actually feel lawns as a concept are overrated in general and I don’t understand why people insist on having them when often they don’t use them. But if you do use the lawn, and there are good examples such as for children, sunbathing, sports and picnics, all it takes is getting the lawn care regime right. This is fairly scientific but really comes down to knowing when to mow it properly, to keep an eye out for problems like compaction and to reseed and repair patches. If this sounds like too much hard work, hire a professional lawn care gardener. For the cost of a fake lawn you could hire someone for well over five years, longer than it will take for a fake lawn to look worn out and grubby. Robot lawn mowers are also a thing of wonder, they do work well and although fairly expensive, are still a tenth of the cost of having astro turf installed.
17) Fake lawns can cause surface run off contributing to flooding
Natural lawns or planting allow water to drain into the soil surface easily, helping to lock deluges of rain in the ground. Whereas solid surfaces cause run off which leads to flooding usually by overloading drains and sewers with too much water all at once. Occasionally they contribute to direct flooding too, especially in paved front gardens. Although water can drain through fake lawns (at least if laid well it should!) this can be slower and less effective than real grass due to the ground below needing compaction to make it solid and flat. In the worst cases you do get run off. Obviously this is going to be better than impermeable patios but it’s not an either or game, we need to be aware of these issues and choose other options that don’t cause run off (and other damage to the environment listed above).