True Cellular Formulas Team - October 09, 2023
The Problem with Synthetic Lawns
More than Just Plastic Grass
Over the past few decades, synthetic lawns have gained significant traction. Lured by the appeal of a perpetually green and low-maintenance yard, homeowners, municipalities, and institutions have been increasingly opting for this artificial alternative. While the benefits seem obvious at first glance—no watering, mowing, or fertilizing—the true cost of these plastic pastures runs deeper than most realize. In this exploration, we delve into the hidden environmental, health, and economic consequences of choosing synthetic over natural turf.
The intricate web of life relies heavily on natural grasslands, which play a vital role in maintaining ecological balance. When we replace these with synthetic counterparts, the ramifications are broad and profound.
1. Loss of Biodiversity: Natural lawns are buzzing with life. From the microscopic organisms in the soil to the insects hovering above and the birds that visit, these ecosystems are teeming with biodiversity. They provide shelter, sustenance, and breeding grounds for countless species. In stark contrast, synthetic lawns are biological deserts. They neither provide food nor habitat, leading to a significant reduction in biodiversity. Over time, this not only affects local ecosystems but has broader implications for the environment as a whole.
2. Soil Health Deterioration: Underneath a healthy lawn, there's a complex system of roots, fungi, and microbes. These entities help aerate the soil, improve water retention, and recycle organic matter. Synthetic lawns interrupt this natural process. By acting as a barrier, they lead to soil compaction, which diminishes water permeability. This can result in poor drainage, increasing the likelihood of flooding and runoff.[2-3]
3. Alteration in Microclimate: Natural grass plays a vital role in regulating local temperatures. Through a process called transpiration, grass releases water into the atmosphere, providing a cooling effect. This phenomenon helps reduce the urban heat island effect, where city areas experience significantly higher temperatures than their rural surroundings. Synthetic grass, on the other hand, doesn't have this cooling capability. In fact, it can get alarmingly hot under direct sunlight, contributing to increased local temperatures and creating uncomfortable or even hazardous conditions for humans and pets.
Toxicity of Plastic & Health Concerns
As we peel back the layers of synthetic lawns, the underlying issues become more concerning. The very material that gives these lawns their durability and vibrant appearance is also a source of numerous health and environmental concerns.
1. Chemical Composition: Synthetic turf is primarily made up of plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene, and nylon. Over time, especially under the harsh conditions of UV radiation and varying weather, these materials can break down and release a range of potentially harmful compounds. Additives used in the production of these plastics, including stabilizers, plasticizers, and flame retardants, may leach into the surrounding environment, posing further risks.
2. Human Exposure: There are multiple avenues through which humans can be exposed to the chemicals from synthetic grass: [4-5]
- Direct Skin Contact: Playing or lying on the turf can lead to skin abrasions, increasing the risk of exposure to harmful chemicals.
- Inhalation: Particles and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released from the degrading turf can be inhaled, especially in high-friction areas like sports fields.
- Water Runoff: After rainfall, toxins from the turf can mix with rainwater and find their way into our water systems.
Regular exposure to these chemicals has raised concerns about potential health risks, such as respiratory issues, skin irritations, and even more severe long-term ailments.
3. Threat to Animals: Our furry friends aren't immune to these dangers either. Animals, particularly domesticated pets, spend a significant amount of time outdoors. When they play, rest, or even chew on synthetic grass, they are exposed to the same toxic chemicals. Ingesting these particles or licking their paws after contact can lead to a myriad of health issues for animals. Furthermore, birds and smaller wildlife may mistakenly ingest the shedding microplastics, which can lead to obstructions and other internal complications.
Environmental Impact of Production & Disposal
While synthetic lawns are often marketed as eco-friendly alternatives due to water conservation, the broader environmental implications of their production and disposal paint a different picture.
1. Carbon Footprint: The manufacturing of synthetic turf is an energy-intensive process. Raw materials have to be sourced, processed, and then transformed into the final product. This chain of production, combined with the transportation of these products around the globe, results in a substantial carbon footprint. In many cases, the emissions generated in creating and distributing synthetic lawns far outweigh the environmental savings from reduced lawn watering or maintenance.
2. Non-Biodegradability: One of the most pressing environmental challenges today is the proliferation of non-biodegradable waste, and synthetic lawns contribute to this problem. Being made primarily of plastics, these lawns can take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose. When they eventually wear out – as they invariably do – they end up in landfills, adding to the mounting plastic waste crisis. The microplastics they shed over time can also find their way into our oceans, posing threats to marine life and entering the food chain.
3. Water Use Paradox: Though synthetic lawns save water in their operational phase by eliminating the need for regular watering, it's essential to consider the entire lifecycle. The water consumption during the production phase of synthetic grass is significant. From the processing of raw materials to the cooling in manufacturing, vast amounts of water are used. This often-overlooked aspect challenges the water-saving argument presented by many proponents of synthetic turf.
The Other Side: Issues with Natural Lawns
It's essential to acknowledge that traditional, manicured natural lawns also come with their set of challenges. First and foremost, maintaining a pristine green lawn often requires frequent watering, which can be a significant drain on local water resources, especially in drought-prone areas. This type of landscaping can consume more water than native plants or drought-resistant gardens.
Additionally, the quest for the "perfect" lawn can lead homeowners to use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. These chemicals can run off into local waterways, contaminating them and harming aquatic life. Regular mowing, a staple of lawn maintenance, not only consumes fuel but also releases greenhouse gases. Moreover, in pursuit of such lawns, many forego the possibility of converting their yards into productive spaces, for instance, growing vegetables or fruits. While natural lawns can be beneficial over synthetic lawns, it's crucial to manage them responsibly and consider more sustainable landscaping alternatives.
Choosing between natural grass and synthetic lawns is more than just a personal aesthetic decision; it's a choice with widespread implications. While the immediate appeal of a perpetually green and low-maintenance yard is evident, it's crucial for individuals and communities to be informed about the broader impacts. By understanding the challenges associated with synthetic lawns, we can make more conscious decisions, explore sustainable landscaping alternatives, and innovate toward a balance that benefits both the individual and the environment.
- “Why Fake Grass Is Far from Green in Ways You Might Not Guess.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 July 2022, theguardian.com/environment/2022/jul/17/why-fake-grass-is-far-from-green-in-ways-you-might-not-guess.
- “Why Are Artificial Lawns Bad for the Environment?” University of Plymouth, www.plymouth.ac.uk/discover/why-are-artificial-lawns-bad-for-the-environment.
- Simpson, Thomas J., and Robert A. Francis. “Artificial Lawns Exhibit Increased Runoff and Decreased Water Retention Compared to Living Lawns Following Controlled Rainfall Experiments.” Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, vol. 63, 2021, p. 127232, doi:10.1016/j.ufug.2021.127232.
- Dubin, Christina. “Synthetic Turf Is Hazardous.” Beyond Plastics - Working To End Single-Use Plastic Pollution, 3 July 2023, www.beyondplastics.org/fact-sheets/synthetic-turf.
- Mohammed, Atef M.F., et al. “Hazard Assessment Study on Organic Compounds and Heavy Metals from Using Artificial Turf.” Heliyon, vol. 9, no. 4, 2023, doi:10.1016/j.heliyon.2023.e14928.
- “To Turf or Not to Turf? Why Artificial Grass Is Wasteful.” North London Waste Authority, www.nlwa.gov.uk/blog/turf-or-not-turf-why-artificial-grass-wasteful.