Real vs. Synthetic Turf

19

A reader of Susan Harris’ recent post about the display of Synlawn synthetic grass at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. asked about the relative environmental merits of synthetic versus real grass.

The short answer, I think, is that while lawn, especially as presently cultivated, is a poor environmental solution, this synthetic grass is far worse.

When I went to the SynLawn website, I found its fine print revealing.  For instance, while the headlines trumpeted the synthetic grass as plant based, a careful reading of the articles included reveals that that is only partially true.  Apparently, materials derived from sugarcane and soy beans are used to replace “up to 60 percent of petroleum-based polymers.”  Clearly, a lot of petroleum products are, in fact, used in the manufacturing of this landscape treatment.

However, it is true, apparently, that plant products are also used.  The first notable point about these materials, in my opinion, is that they are not plant wastes or agricultural byproducts.  They are foods.  In a world where many people go hungry, what are the ethics of using foods to create faux grass?  I’ll let the reader decide that.  Rather, I’ll point out that neither sugarcane nor soybeans come without an environmental price tag.

Cultivation of sugarcane requires large inputs of nitrates, which are manufactured from natural gas, a fossil fuel.  Sugarcane also has a big appetite for phosphates, and the runoff from the canefields promotes water pollution and algal blooms wherever sugarcane is grown.  Soybeans have their own special costs.  The on-going boom in global soybean production is second only to cattle ranching in driving destruction of savannahs and tropical forests.

No environmental services

What do we get in return for these costs?  Not much, aside from a vista of “clean and green.”  Live turf, if properly cultivated, will help somewhat to filter the water that falls on it, can sequester substantial amounts of carbon in the soil, and helps cool its environs in the summertime.  Synthetic turf offers none of these services.

Installing faux grass does end the need for mowing and the air pollution that creates, but Synlawn won’t renew itself like a living vegetation does.  A quick web-check turned up estimates of the lifespan for artificial turf ranging from 10 to 15 years, at most 20 to 25; the Arizona distributor for Synlawn offers a 15-year warranty.  At the end of that time, the synthetic grass will have to be removed and replaced.  The resulting waste is theoretically compostable (according to Synlawn), but my bet is that it will go to the landfill.

Real turf sequesters significant amounts of carbon in the soil to help combat the greenhouse effect

If you are concerned about wildlife, you know that even a weedy lawn provides relatively little support for pollinators.  A synthetic lawn, however, provides none.

If you are really tired of mowing and want a more environmentally beneficial groundcover, I suggest you consider planting a meadow.  That’s what I’m going to do in my back yard this fall.

Previous articleWhat to Plant Along Sidewalks and Edges of Borders?
Next articleGood News from DC – it’s Tops in Green Roofs!
Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 30 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Essential Perennials, a guide to the best contemporary perennial flowers co-authored with Ruth Rogers Clausen and published by Timber Press.  I’m currently working on a book about ecological gardening with Larry Weaner.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.

 

Contact Tom by email

19 COMMENTS

  1. I think we all get impatient with mowing, but actually lawns are a relatively easy way to maintain large areas as greenspace. I’m going to plant half my existing lawn (@5,400 square feet) to meadow. I know that prepping the area and seeding it will require a good deal of effort, but I’m hoping I’ll benefit in the long run as once the meadow is in, I’ll mow just once a year. Plus, I’m planning to plant a seed mix especially beneficial to Monarchs and other butterflies, so I’ll be improving the habitat. But you are tight: if you don’t water and fertilize and don’t care about weeds, then lawn can be a fairly low maintenance solution.

  2. :: even a weedy lawn provides relatively little support for pollinators ::
    Depends on the “weeds”. White clover, which is about a third of the lawn here, is covered with nectaring fritillaries and other insects when in flower (also fixes enough nitrogen for the grasses that there’s no need to fertilize).

    The water infiltration argument alone is a strong one against artificial turf; over the lifetime of the plastic carpet, there’ll be a huge decrease in the microbial life and long-term health of the soil beneath. Reel mowers and solar-powered mowers are suitable for relatively flat lawns, and there are a number of grass & sedge mixes that don’t need to be mowed as often as traditional turf grasses.

  3. Can you share more information about those grass and sedges mixes? That sounds interesting.

    • Prairie Nursery sells a “Low Mow” mix that is intended to be mowed just a couple of times a year: https://www.prairienursery.com/store/no-mow-lawn/no-mow-lawn-seed-mix
      PN is in Wisconsin, and the mix is suited to the soils and climate of the North central U.S., where precipitation can happen in every season and where the length and depth of winter cold ensure a dormant period.

      There are other mixes developed for summer-dry regions, where deep rooting allows the plants to stay green despite little or no rainfall, and where milder winters mean a much shorter or nonexistent dormancy.
      It’s a highly regional thing. Some of the research is being driven by golf courses looking to cut down on the resources needed to maintain turf.

      Search on “no mow” and “low mow”, and ask local landscapers about it. Pam Penick of Austin, Texas and the Digging blog (penick.net) has written two books, Waterwise Gardening and Lawn Gone, which may touch on the topic. Pam herself may have some useful ideas that didn’t make it into the books.

  4. I greatly appreciate your insight into synthetic turf. There are times when clients prefer that over lawn due to its ease of maintenance (no mowing), no fertilizing, and no pesticide or herbicide use. All of what you have to say should be weighed against that, but I suspect that a limited amount of real lawn – one of the types that grow low and mixed with short perennials – managed sustainably (push mower, included) would be kinder to our planet and offer more diversity. Getting people away from lawn is akin to getting a smoker off cigarettes, if not worse. I keep trying – every single day.

  5. We live in Las Vegas where water is an extreme issue, so there is lots of synthetic turf for eyes craving green. But in extreme heat, it smells bad! You can smell the plastic off-gassing. Some people claim not to smell it, but if you can, it’s awful!

    • Hot, dry places are exactly where traditional lawns make no sense; they simply consume too much scarce water. But, as your experience shows, plastic carpeting (“synthetic turf”) used on a lawn scale actively makes life more unpleasant for people outdoors: not just the off-gassing, but also increased reflected heat.
      Plants are the way to break this unhappy cycle, but…

  6. I don’t think most people would do an entire lawn. Myself I have a few areas that even weeds won’t grow! The tree roots pretty much suck up any water. I’ve probably put down 200 bags of mulch. It would be nice to have it for my sitting area. But your points are valid & definitely well worth listening to.

  7. I live in the south of France. I have no lawn and do not miss it. I formerly lived in San Diego and also had no lawn, just native shrubs and trees, which to me was far more interesting and obviously good habitat. Fake grass is fake grass. Its full of plastic, and what isn’t plastic is not at all ecologically sourced. However, our mania for driving petro-powered vehicles, and our generally destructive life style will get us long before the fake grass will.

    • It strikes me that it is all part of the same attitude toward our environment — using fossil fuels to compensate for our unwillingness to come to terms with nature. I don’t understand why someone living in an arid or semi-arid region where turf will not grow without lavish watering would resort to a plastic carpet rather than embracing the beauties of the local flora and landscape. To live in the midst of fake plastic lawn seems such an impoverished existence to me.

  8. I have a small area 6×10′, of synthetic turf, for my dogs. It’s worked really well. The dogs stay clean, the area stays clean. I tried a lot of alternatives first. Turf grass did not work because the area is full shade. Ground cover plants could not survive the dog traffic. Mulch stuck to the dogs and scattered everywhere. Gravel was too hard and also scattered everywhere. DG was a mess in wet and dry weather and also stuck to the dogs.

    For certain limited applications, synthetic turf is a good solution. Mine is made from plastic that was previously milk bottles.

    • A perfect application, and scale, for synthetic turf; thanks very much for sharing your experience.

  9. Hello Thomas, thank you so much for your review. While SYNLawn’s synthetic grass products are not yet 100% sustainable, we continue to lead the industry, taking measurable steps to produce clean, renewable and recyclable products. We don’t believe artificial grass is going to replace the real thing any time soon, but it does come in handy in many various applications as you’ve recently experienced at the National Building Museum’s LAWN exhibition. SYNLawn is so much more than replacing a lawn for convenience, we are a safe solution for pet owners, school playgrounds, community rooftops; the applications are limitless. For example, you mentioned Arizona, a desert region where grass doesn’t always grow and water is a scarce and precious resource. The aesthetic of a grass lawn is achievable without the need for watering. Again, we thank you for your opinion and invite you to follow our company as we continue to improve our products to reach our goal of becoming carbon neutral.

  10. I have a feeling that the sugarcane used is a byproduct of producing sugar, in which case that is a way of recycling it. Maybe the plastics are also recycled. Personally, I prefer a garden to lawn and have replaced the backyard lawn with a large organic garden and chicken coop. I’d like a cottage garden in the front to get rid of the lawn part, but am in waiting game with the city. They are supposed to replace the street tree broken sidewalk, but are most likely waiting for me to install a white picket fence first so they can rip it out.

Comments are closed.