If your attention during the Women’s World Cup was on the pitch rather than the players, you might have noticed that the matches were all played on real grass. That was a hard-won change, made after the US team complained to FIFA that they sustained more injuries on artificial turf.
In private gardens the opposite trend is happening: British gardens are being dug up and replaced with plastic grass.
However, this is not the flaky, fading stuff on which oranges were once displayed at the grocery store. Today’s artificial grass is nearly identical to the real thing.
Illustration: Mountain People
With products named after beautiful places — Lake District, Valencia — modern artificial turf mimics not just the mottled coloring and shape of grass blades, but the warm springiness of earth.
Unlike the grass itself, the market is growing. Dozens of specialist firms market fake grass as a replacement for garden lawns.
UK sales surged during last year’s record summer temperatures, according to the industry journal Hortweek, while a report by Up Market Research valued the global market at US$2.5 billion in 2016 and forecasts a “staggering” rise to US$5.8 billion by 2023.
As artificial grass has become much cheaper and more realistic, it now appeals to a wide range of people: city residents with shaded gardens where grass does not grow well, or to carpet urban rooftops and balconies; families with children or dogs who do not want a muddy mess; older or disabled people who struggle to maintain a garden; and schools and nurseries where playgrounds get heavy use, said Andy Driver, sales and marketing director for the artificial turf supplier Evergreens UK.
For many people there is social pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” by having a perfectly trimmed, green lawn the entire year, he said.
Perhaps aware of another kind of social pressure, some firms pitch their products as eco-friendly alternatives.
For example, Royal Grass said that its environmentally friendly turf, called Eco-Sense, is recyclable (“in other words, cradle-to-cradle”) and that it “has the look and feel of natural grass, but outperforms its natural source of inspiration.”
“’Green’ is a premium goal in our quest on how we can make our artificial grass more sustainable. This starts at the beginning of the process, with the careful selection of the raw materials that are used to produce the grass blades,” it said.
However, while the fake grass might indeed be greener, at least in color, its environmental effects are difficult to gloss over.
Paul Hetherington, fundraising director for the charity Buglife, said that artificial turf is far from an eco-friendly alternative to natural grass.
“It blocks access to the soil beneath for burrowing insects, such as solitary bees, and the ground above for soil dwellers such as worms, which will be starved of food beneath it,” he said. “It provides food for absolutely no living creatures.”
This is a particular concern in view of the dramatic global decline in insect species. The UK is on course to miss its own targets for protecting its natural spaces and has lost 97 percent of its wildflower meadows in a single generation.
It is not just wildlife that artificial turf affects. The British Committee on Climate Change recommends rewilding a huge area of UK land and growing many more trees to help tackle global heating by storing carbon.
Not only does fake grass have no climate benefits, but producing the plastic emits carbon and uses fossil fuels.
The common practice of replacing soil with sand to provide a more stable bed for the fake grass also releases even more carbon dioxide stored in the earth, said David Elliott, chief executive of tree-planting charity Trees for Cities.
There is also the matter of microplastics: the tiny particles of plastic that have made their way throughout the globe and are present in food, water and even the air.
Evergreen UK’s turf is made mainly of polyethylene, with polypropylene and polyamide for some purposes.
Driver said that the microplastics problem does not affect the artificial grass industry, because it does not sell single-use products.
“Our products don’t degrade, we’ve always not had it as an issue, basically,” he said, adding that products from legitimate firms conform to standards set by the industry.
Madeleine Berg, project manager at the environmental charity Fidra, said that most plastics are likely to contribute to microplastics through physical and chemical degradation, such as being stepped on and exposed to constant sunlight.
“You would be hard-pressed to say that you have created a product which doesn’t shed anything,” Berg said.
There are also growing concerns about the effects of the synthetic chemicals that are added to artificial grass on human health and the environment.
The EU has been investigating specialist artificial turf used on sports fields for suspected carcinogens, and is considering banning intentionally added microplastics.
While these are different products to those sold to home gardeners, Berg said that artificial pitches are sometimes reused for landscaping.
What happens to fake grass when it reaches the end of its life in 10 to 20 years?
Unlike Royal Grass, Evergreens UK does not market itself as eco-friendly, a term Driver calls “a little bit misleading,” but he was keen to say that his company’s products can be recycled.
However, this can only be done at specialist plants in Europe and it is doubtful that many customers would go the extra mile.
British Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) chief horticulturist Guy Barter said that there is a place for artificial turf as an alternative to paving slabs, gravel and particularly concrete, which is its own environmental nightmare.
“Hard landscaping can be very expensive and people fancy a bit of green in a small garden. We’ve even laid a bit [of artificial grass] ourselves,” Barter said.
“But I don’t think that for all but specialized purposes that it really compares with [real] grass. Not only does it not provide any of the environmental benefits of grass — like soaking up moisture, home for insects, feeding birds, self-sustaining — its life isn’t that long. It gets trampled on and quite soon looks poor. It can’t be relaid or reseeded; it has to be rolled up, lifted and sent to landfill,” he added.
Barter conceded that the root of the problem is social pressure for a perfect green lawn.
“In the mindset of the British public you haven’t really got a garden unless you’ve got a lawn,” he said. “And I think a lot of people are put off by lawns, because there’s so much quite confusing technical speak around it like mowing, feeding, weeding, moss control and overseeding. A lot of people just aren’t interested — they don’t have time in their busy lives.”
There are some environmental benefits to using artificial grass. Unlike a real lawn, fake grass doesn’t need to be mowed — which some people do with electric or fossil fuel mowers — or watered, which is a serious consideration as the UK anticipates increasing water stress due to the climate crisis.
Nor does it require fertilizers or herbicides, some of which have been subject to huge controversy, to achieve a uniform look.
However, lawns can also be maintained without those negative practices and products, and the soil loss problem is real: the RHS’ Greening Grey Britain survey has found a threefold rise in the number of front gardens that have been paved over.
Barter also challenges the idea that artificial turf is maintenance-free, saying that it still needs to be cleaned of litter and moss growth, and some owners have simply replaced mowing with vacuuming.
“There are better solutions that would give people more pleasure than just looking out at this sheet of slowly degrading plastic,” he said.
He suggested planting shady front gardens with tolerant shrubs, such as evergreen bushes, which provide greenery all year round, need little maintenance, suppress weeds, offer food for wildlife and places for birds to nest, and give hedgehogs and frogs cover to travel safely in urban streets.
“After all, we are supposed to be a nation of gardeners,” Barter said.
To Trevor Dines, botanical specialist for charity Plantlife, the popularity of artificial grass shows how disconnected people have become from the natural world.
“Whenever I see artificial grass, my heart sinks — more nature smothered by more plastic. Where once we were famed for our lawns, we now opt for artificial, low-maintenance solutions,” he said. “This is not just to the detriment of wildlife, but to us, too; children can’t make a daisy chain on a plastic lawn.”
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