In the midst of the dual crises of pandemic and social upheaval, I am reluctant to nag anyone about lawns, no matter whether they are grass or artificial turf. We are doing what we can for ourselves and others, and this is not the time to beat ourselves up for failing at perfection. Indeed, there have been times in my life when I was too busy to do anything more than stick a six pack of marigolds alongside the mangy lawn in our back yard. Somehow, my kids managed to survive childhood without a beautiful lawn or a fantastic discovery garden. In any case, I hope this post offers you some nonjudgmental perspectives on the substance your feet may encounter in your yard or on a soccer field.
Current problems aside, there are many reasons to feel conflicted and confused about natural grass vs. synthetic turf options for lawns and fields. We may love the tidiness of a lawn or its allure as a child’s play area. Or we may resist the water, chemicals, and sheer time needed to maintain a lawn, and be attracted to a synthetic alternative. We may also feel overwhelmed by the conflicting and sometimes deliberately deceptive claims about the risks of artificial turf to our health and safety. Or we may be OK with either option, simply appreciating the outdoor public spaces in our communities no matter what they are made of.
The Rise of the Lawn
For centuries, the expansive, well-tended lawn has symbolized prosperity and moral virtue. In 1850, American philosopher Andrew Jackson Downing wrote, “When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country, we know that order and culture are established.” In the next century, lawns became widespread throughout the US.
However, in the 1960s and 70s, concerns began to emerge about the harm to wildlife and the pollution of waterways caused by toxic fertilizers and pesticides used on lawns. As drought conditions became more widespread, criticism focused on the huge amount of water used to irrigate lawns. And a search for alternatives began in earnest.
Synthetic Grass: Solving Some Problems, Creating Others
|Astroturf at the Astrodome
In the mid 1960s Monsanto Industries created the first artificial turf, marketing it under the name Chemgrass. The new product burst into public awareness when it was installed in the Houston Astrodome and its name was changed to the much cooler-sounding Astroturf. For the next two decades, synthetic turf was installed throughout the country not only in professional venues but also on playgrounds and community athletic fields. It was also beginning to be used in private homes in place of natural grass lawns. Easy maintenance, no downtime needed to let the grass grow back, theoretically doesn’t need sun, water, or pesticides. Awesome!
Problems with Artificial Turf
The original plastic turf was made from carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and polyethylene. Eventually, Monsanto and other companies began adding a layer of infill made from recycled tires to hold up the plastic blades of grass, create a soft cushiony feeling, and prevent injuries. Tires contain natural and synthetic rubber as well as other petroleum products. They also contain a variety of metals including lead, which is neurotoxic. Some of the chemicals in tires, such as dibenzopyrenes, are known carcinogens. One study found that tiny particles from the crumb rubber can become suspended in the air above the turf and inhaled by anyone playing on it.
Patti Wood, founder of Grassroots Environmental Education, has summed up the situation succinctly, “This crumb rubber is a material that cannot be legally disposed of in landfills or ocean-dumped because of its toxicity. Why on earth should we let our children play on it?”
In response to these concerns, companies are currently experimenting with alternative materials for infill, including plant-based substances like soy and coconut husks.
However, bad news came recently in the form of a study by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Center for Ecology. They tested eight samples of turf for 36 types of PFAS. All the samples tested positive for total fluorine, which suggests the presence of PFAS. PFAS are synthetic organic compounds known for their resistance to stains and heat and their nonstick, waterproof qualities. These nasty customers remain for decades in soil and groundwater. Studies of the best-known PFAS show links to kidney cancer and testicular cancer as well as endocrine disruption.
Three More Things to Consider
- Synthetic turf absorbs sunlight very...ummm…efficiently. One study found that the temperature of a field made of synthetic turf can reach 140 degrees when it is 78 degrees outside. Sunlight reflected off the windows in a home can actually melt synthetic grass in the yard. You may have to water the artificial grass to keep it cool.
- After synthetic turf’s lifespan of 8 to 10 years is over, it can theoretically be recycled but this expensive and labor-intensive process is rarely undertaken. In the US, we discard about 80 million square feet of turf a year. Typically, it all goes in a landfill where it sits for centuries.
- Synthetic turf does not provide a home to burrowing insects, nor does it offer sustenance for pollinators like bees and bumblebees.
Synthetic turf continues to grow in popularity throughout the world. Market forecasts estimate that sales will surpass $3 billion US dollars by 2024! These days synthetic turf is widely marketed as “kid and pet friendly” with no apparent proof of its safety and little government regulation.
Consider Some Alternatives!
Plant a bee lawn: The idea of a bee lawn is to incorporate low-growing bee-friendly perennial flowers into turfgrass. Bee lawns can handle foot traffic and can be mowed less often than conventional lawns. One popular seed mix for a bee lawn relies on various kinds of fescue for the grass component, along with clover, creeping thyme, and self-heal.
Consider lawn alternatives: For a lawn-ish look, you can plant the well-mannered Fescue californica, or go with the wild and crazy Carex tumulicola. You can also mix grasses in with wildflowers like California poppies and lupine to create a meadow that attracts butterflies, birds, and beneficial insects. Or try a hardy groundcover like Blue Star Creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis), which tolerates foot traffic.
Create a children’s discovery garden: You don’t need a huge space – a safe balcony or outdoor patio would work. And it may be fun for your children to help you create it. Here’s one site with some ideas:
Or Keep the Darn Lawn and Relax Your Standards…
I like this comment by Jane Memmott, a professor of ecology at the University of Bristol: “This whole business of keeping your lawn clipped and pulling the weeds out is part of some British obsession with tidiness. If you look back at old pictures, people weren’t as tidy. I think bohemian untidiness is what we’re aiming for – you don’t want it to look like neglect.”
To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran: If you love your lawn, let it go (to seed)…
On a Somewhat Different Note
Helping Children Learn About Climate Change in Frightening Times
Amidst the current pandemic and social unrest, people have many reasons to be anxious. How can we comfort children and is there a way to teach them about environmental sustainability without adding to their anxiety?
I recommend looking for books and articles that offer concrete ways for children to take action within their own familiar home or community context. For example, “The Earth Book” by Todd Parr is a picture book for very young children with simple suggestions for how they can help the earth stay healthy.
Older children are increasingly able to absorb scientific information about climate change. They also benefit from being encouraged to become active agents rather than bystanders. Climate change activist Amber Pairis argues that we need to provide children with science and solutions. Her Climate Science Activity Book provides factual information for kids along with ideas for activities and links to videos and other resources:
Children can also learn about the environment at the National Geographic Kids website, and their family members can find additional information and ideas about activities at
I hope these suggestions are helpful. If you want to share any other resources, email them to me and I will make them available to readers. A Dialogue With Readers
Thanks very much to those of you who commented on my first blog post about plastic wrap. One reader asked how I can be sure that the information I am presenting is scientifically accurate.
There is indeed a mountain of information on the environment and climate change, and some of it is not based on legitimate evidence or analysis. I am not an expert on climate change, but I have training and experience in conducting research and analyzing data. I also learned how to evaluate evidence relevant to environmental advocacy in the EFM Master class.
For the Notebook, I read widely to ensure that multiple sources concur on a particular point before I include it in a post. I am really careful to keep in mind the professional affiliation of authors in order to evaluate their credibility and ascertain possible financial interest in promoting a particular issue or product. And when a topic is particularly complex, I seek guidance from an expert in the field.To Learn More
That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future Notebook topics? Send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Nita and Rob’s new award-winning call-to-action book, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” is available at www.wildflowerbook.com. To see more birds and other images visit www.winterbadger.com.