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  • Writer's pictureClare Snowdon

We Need to Talk About Plastic Grass

I have a confession to make – a few years ago we had some squares of artificial grass to make the path in our garden. Obviously, this was before I was aware that it breaks down and sheds microplastics into the environment. It was also before I appreciated just how much impact plants in soil have on climate change and the difference one garden can make to biodiversity. It was relatively cheap and easy to install and it looked more natural than paving (yes, I know!) and permeable to water. It was a solution to the muddiness of the path to my husband’s office.

Now you can judge me if you like, but the truth is that our criticism of others is not very effective in behaviour change. So I decided to start with understanding and did a little research into the reasons people are convinced to use it.

The first thing you discover is that there is a lot of marketing deployed to sell the stuff and companies work hard to make it seem as natural and innocuous as possible. Company names like “Love Lawns,” “Love It Lawns,” “Trulawns” and product names like “Altruistic artificial grass” help to establish a mental equivalence with plant lawns. Garden centres and DIY stores sell it alongside real turf. It is also available from carpet stores.

Invariably the product descriptions talk about it being “healthy” and “safe.” Looking at the marketing, it seems to key points are that the grass is safe and useful for pets and children. In fact, convenience, having year-round green, it being clean and easy to maintain all seem to be important. For many people, there are possibly four or five main factors:

  • cleanliness – including not having kids or pets treading mud through the home

  • convenience – not having to get out the mower and having a tidy-looking outdoor space

  • tidiness – the idea that gardens need to have a neatly-mown lawn (in many places in the US grass is forbidden to be above a certain height) and the trend towards outdoor rooms rather than gardens

  • hygiene and a sense that nature is dirty and not safe

  • difficulties with heavy footfall and getting natural grass to grow

It’s safe to say that these trends can be contagious, with people inspired to follow suit from their neighbours. It is also worth mentioning that for people with mobility issues, the more even surface that artificial grass or paving can offer may make a lot of sense – another reason not to be overly judgmental.

There are a number of problems with artificial grass:

  • we are seeing catastrophic declines in wildlife populations and this has serious implications for our survival as a species (setting aside the fact that we ought to care about wildlife irrespective of “utility!”) Artificial surfaces are a desert as far as nature is concerned – they support no life apart from possibly single-celled organisms like bacteria. This is not entirely true, because, much to the dismay of the householder, grasses and other plants do make their way onto and through the artificial grass – their roots can penetrate it and find the soil beneath

  • it is a pollutant – microplastics get washed off into the environment and there are signs that these are not just affecting other animals but humans as well. Most of the artificial grass is made from polyethylene – the same stuff plastic bags are made from. In a study, 80% of people were found to have plastic in their blood stream and 25% had polyethylene. It is too early to say what the effects of this may be on human health, but their are signs that it may impair oxygen uptake and that the plastic gets passed from pregnant women to their foetuses

  • plants in soil help reduce climate change, covering the soil with plastic adds to the problem – not least because it is made from a by-product of fossil fuels. It may also add to issues with flooding as the rain is less able to drain into the soil beneath

  • artificial grass gets extremely hot – they have been measured at 100 degrees Celsius, but even at lower temperatures they can easily burn a child or pet. This is really concerning given its widespread use in schools and nurseries. Paving also gets pretty hot, but natural grass is very much cooler than either.

The fake plant market is currently set at an estimated $3bn and rising. People who are concerned about the disappearing plants are up against a huge marketing budget. So we have our work cut out for us in helping to turn this tide in artificial garden coverings, but we need to start with compassion and finding ways to help people see nature in a different way and to help make garden spaces practical and beautiful all year round without a huge budget, skill or physical labour. It needs to be fashionable to go wild, but we also need to meet people where they are, with the things that matter most to them. There is definitely a role here for gardening experts, TV gardening programmes and magazines.

The other key thing is to get planning and regulation to do its job in protecting wider society and the environment from harm. There have been petitions to try to address this but there seems to be little appetite at the moment as it would no doubt be unpopular with businesses and a growing sector of the public. Still, it is worth persevering!

I really wanted to offer here solutions so here are a few thoughts. I will add to them as I find them.

One of the biggest uses for our gardens is as a safe place for the kids to play. They can get quite a lot of trampling (and the plants can get a bit battered too!) So it’s worth looking out plants to suit. I did find places that stock football pitch/sports field grass mix. Whether these can be bought in quantities for a small garden is another matter, but it could be worth talking to your local school or sports club or neighbours to see whether you could help one another out.

The other thing is to look for compromise. Is it possible to have wild edges or a wild area?

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