Artificial grass may seem like a good alternative to a traditional lawn, but is there more to the story?
At the beginning of my career removing traditional lawns and installing drought-tolerant landscapes I wondered how artificial lawns fit into the whole scene of drought-tolerant landscaping. It seems like a great alternative especially if you want to completely rid yourself of the hassle to ever tend to your lawn while also keeping it green and lush. But after putting in some time researching artificial lawns, I now have a better understanding of why they don’t fit into any environmentally friendly decision for a lawn substitute.
How are artificial lawns made and installed?
Artificial lawns are made with polyethylene. This is the most widely used oil-based plastic that uses the same fossil fuels creating environmental issues that contribute to climate change and drought. The trick to get the best looking and most durable synthetic lawns are to use new “virgin” plastics to keep consistent color and texture. Virgin plastic is new plastic that has no recycled plastic in it.
Dyes and chemicals are added to get the green color and protect from ultraviolet rays. This plastic is melted and extruded into flat grass like strands that are stretched and twisted then rolled onto spools. The spools are thatched into a polyvinyl backing. A thick coating of latex or other impermeable rubber is used to coat the underside and glue the grass strands into place. The carpets of grass are rolled up and sent to wholesalers where they await pick up from an installer.
Installation of the synthetic grass can only be accomplished by first excavating the native soil down at least a few inches depending on soil type and compact-ability. This soil and your old lawn is disposed of in the landfill where it is considered hazardous due to all the chemicals and fertilizers used in upkeep of traditional lawns.
The land must be graded and smoothed with a steam roller making sure that even the smallest of divots are nonexistent or they will stick out like sore thumbs when the turf is laid. A base of cement or gravel must then be laid and compacted creating an impermeable layer of rock. Again, there can be no divots in this layer as well.
A complex drain system also needs to be installed so rain can be diverted off the property and into the storm drains. These drains must be laid carefully at a proper grade as to not cause erosion or flooding. This guarantees the rain falling on your new synthetic lawn will never resupply drinking water aquifers.
In addition, all of the pollutants that built up on the synthetic lawn between rains – compounds from automobile exhaust, your neighbors’ fertilizers, pesticides, animal waste, and other chemicals – are carried off through the storm drains which causes harm to aquatic and riparian ecosystems.
Now to keep you from feeling like your walking on a carpet covered cement slab, they cover this compacted layer with a resilient pad over which a foam layer adds the natural give of a biological lawn.
Finally, after your whole yard is covered in a layer of rock several inches thick, and 2 layers of petroleum based products also inches thick, you are ready to lay your artificial lawn.
Now that looks great! But there’s one last step and that is to “fill” the lawn. This is where you sprinkle a little bit of loose brown grass strands to get the most authentic fresh cut look and plastic sand that helps the strands stand up giving you a “naturally” sandy feeling lawn. If you’re thinking – “won’t that just wash off and float down the drain with the first rain?” – you are correct! That’s why you will have to buy more of this filler to keep the lawn looking as it did when first installed.
With the high cost, are they worth it?
You tell me! With an installation cost ranging wildly from $5 all the way to $20 per square foot it’s hard to grasp what it will cost.
We all know you’re not going for the $5 AstroTurf rug made famous by the RV crowd at the campground. So after all the small add-ons (ie: extra bag of filler, hints of brown for a more natural look, better plastic to make sure it makes it all the way to 10 years), you’ll have to upgrade to at least the $10/ sq. foot range just to meet your initial expectations.
Now time for a little math, That means that for an average California lawn of 2,000 – 3,600 square feet (according to the Public Policy Institute of California) you’re looking at an average cost of $20,000-$36,000.
With an average life span of ten years that means for most home buyers you will have to invest at least $60,000 – $108,000 just in your lawn before you’re done paying for a 30 year mortgage.
In addition to the hundred grand you have invested into your lawn, you have also created the need for three lawns along with the rubber mats to be recycled. That’s on average over 8,400 square feet of plastic mat. If you think this is a fair trade for a maintenance free lawn, just wait!
Think you’re getting out of maintenance? Think again!
Leaves will still fall. Wind will still blow dirt and dust. And dogs will still… well you get the picture.
Even though a synthetic lawn may often be sold as “Maintenance Free”, what happens on the lawn is not. If you or neighbors have trees, the leaves will still have to be raked or blown off. If wind-blown dirt is not taken care of this has the tendency to build up and cake the lawn, making it look like a well-worn door mat that has never been shaken out.
With a greensward, most of this organic matter would naturally break down and continue the nutrient cycle.
While a dog can make a quick mess of a traditional lawn just running around, it can regrow. The wear of a dog on a synthetic lawn can cost a lot of money and time to fix. Not to mention the “hose it into the ground” method doesn’t work with the dog urine and fecal matter that is inevitable! Even if cleaned up it will harbor these harmful bacteria and collect other pollutant particles as well. Making them a very unsanitary option.
Synthetic lawns are not good for the environment or us!
Coupled with the plastic and recycling issues, synthetic lawns are not good at all for the environment.
The impermeable materials used in installation divert rain water from ever reaching the ground supply, contribute to stormwater pollution, and can cause erosion on your property if not properly graded to direct rain water to the nearest storm drain.
In addition, when the sun comes out these lawns are hot, I mean they can burn a baby hot! Synthetic lawns can heat up over 50% more than traditional lawns, meaning if it’s in the low 80’s a traditional lawn could be in the low to mid 80’s while a synthetic lawn can exceed 130 degrees.
I don’t have children yet but I wouldn’t put myself on a surface that hot!
They also heat up to a point where the petroleum products begin to release chemical fumes into the air that absorb into our skin and are inhaled with every breath, creating a huge array of known and possibly unknown health complications.
Being closer to the ground and often playing on all fours, this makes children and pets more prone to ingesting these harmful particles and toxins.
In addition to creating harmful gasses, they will not absorb any greenhouse gasses like a biological lawn or native garden will.
Something else to think about is all the small plastic sand and grass blades – which are loosely added as “filler” for the feel and look of fresh cut grass – breaking off. This will lead to its own list of issues for animal owners like bowel obstruction.
At the very least you will end up like my in-laws, who just bought a home with a small strip of newly installed synthetic lawn in the back. Their yellow lab now has a slight hue of green in her coat from rolling on the lawn and picking up these fibers. Those fibers are then deposited in the house making vacuuming an even more frequent chore.
While on the subject of animals, synthetic lawns reduce habitat for a wide range of insects, worms, and small birds and mammals, making your yard a barren landscape void of wildlife.
Lastly, the saying goes “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. They are said in that order for a reason. We need to reduce our plastic consumption, then try to reuse plastic products, and then recycle them. With artificial turf being manufactured using virgin plastic, and only being able to be recycle this style of lawn, this type of landscaping is quite unsustainable.
What can we do instead?
With less cost than a synthetic lawn you can create a tremendous drought-tolerant native landscape, which, after the plants are established, no watering is needed and only seasonal trimming is necessary.
This will bring back habitat for beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife, while providing plants to help filter pollutants and greenhouse gases from the air and resupply the soil with nutrients. If you live on the central coast of California like I do this means you can make your yard a part of the great Monarch butterfly migration and host a slew of hummingbirds and honey bees.
Ahhhh… I already feel relaxed writing about a vibrant native landscapes full of life rather than artificial lawns! So I ask you to please make a difference and forego an artificial lawn by installing a lush, full of life drought-tolerant native landscape!
We welcome you be a part of the solution, be a role model in your neighborhood and help us spread the word about what you have learned here today. I would love to hear your comments below, or feel free to contact us with any questions!