For many people in drought-stricken areas, it is becoming increasingly obvious that a lush grass lawn is an uphill, water-wasting battle. Artificial grass turf promises the perfect solution – a seamless green carpet that doesn’t need mowing and can stand up to foot traffic, kids, and pets.
But what seems to be a low-maintenance, eco-friendly option is far from the reality. Water is wasted hosing down plastic turf that retains foul smells from pet waste, leaf blowers are used to clear off debris that no longer break down into the soil, and the turf creates a hot, unpleasant surface come summertime. Weeds pop up among the margins and through thin areas of turf, and messy infill spills over onto sidewalks and into storm drains.
Artificial turf was first developed in the 1960s, an innovative solution for sports fields in covered stadiums where grass couldn’t be grown. Developed by the chemical company Monsanto, under the name “Chem Grass”, artificial turf was made by tufting plastic fibers onto a plastic backing with machines similar to ones that make indoor carpets and rugs.
Artificial turf is energy intensive to produce and made of petroleum-based plastics that contribute to climate change. The construction, maintenance, and final removal of an artificial turf field creates 527 tons of CO2 equivalents. While outside, plastic weathers and breaks down in the sun in a process known as photodegradation, becoming lighter in color and more brittle as time passes.
Because it breaks down over time, the plastic-based artificial turf is expected to last only 8 to 10 years, requiring multiple expensive installations. And when it no longer looks appealing, it is rolled up and sent to the landfill or haphazardly dumped, ultimately becoming another source of plastic trash. Artificial turf producers claim that the material is “recyclable” but few, if any, recycling facilities will accept the material. Turf instead ends up dumped in fields and vacant lots where it continues to break down and pollute. Even industry estimates look bleak, as the Synthetic Turf Council estimates that if even half the material in a school turf field is recycled, 225,000 lbs will still be sent to landfill. Once installed, restoring an area previously covered in turf back to grass or plants can be challenging, and most people will opt to simply lay down a new sheet of turf and continue the cycle of waste.
Before installation, the ground is flattened, compacted, and covered with gravel and plastic to create a level surface for the turf. The compaction of the ground underneath and the turf itself causes higher volumes of stormwater runoff and lower infiltration rates, contributing to local flooding and stormwater pollution. Turf turns the remaining topsoil into an ecological wasteland, slowly cooked with high heat and starved of nutrients, air, and moisture. With no plant roots to create water-absorbing, spongy soil, the ground will become dry, damaged, and unable to filter and absorb rain. This contributes to more urban runoff, which pollutes our waterways and coasts.
And the runoff from turf can carry toxic chemicals and microplastics. PFAs, the “forever chemicals” that increase the flexibility and waterproofing of plastics, have been found in many samples of artificial turf. Artificial turf fields and PFAs are now being linked to cancer in professional athletes exposed to them over decades, and researchers are just beginning to understand the scope of how long-term PFA exposure can affect our health and contaminate water sources. Large-scale turf fields are also often infilled with ground-up tires, branded as an eco-friendly recycling strategy. In reality, the tire crumb leaches toxic chemicals and spills out into the environment, carried into storm drains and landing in our aquatic environments as another source of microplastic pollution.
Plastic and rubber infill is used as padding on artificial turf fields and often ends up in storm drains and waterways as microplastic pollution.
Athletes or kids playing on artificial turf can also be hurt by “turf burns” or physical abrasions caused by slipping or falling onto the turf. The rough plastic can severely scrape off skin, and these turf burns have been implicated in outbreaks of MRSA on school sports teams.
In the summer, synthetic turf can reach temperatures of 187 degrees, even hotter than asphalt in the same conditions. This can heat your home and neighborhood in a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. As our developed areas face longer and more intense heat waves with climate change, artificial turf is only adding to the problem. In contrast, plants and trees absorb heat from their surroundings through evaporative cooling, and can help us cope with extreme heat events by lowering surrounding temperatures up to 7 degrees.
Artificial turf yards are devoid of color and variety, a bland, plastic carpet that looks the same throughout the seasons. There are no pleasant smells of native plants, no cheerful spring blooms of wildflowers, and no personality added to your space. This sheet of green, textured plastic could be anywhere, hoping you do not look close enough to see the illusion of an intensively maintained, water-guzzling grass lawn.
Besides being a flat, boring design, your artificial turf will also be empty of life. No hummingbirds will buzz by, no bees will be visiting flowers, and migrating butterflies and songbirds will skip over your yard in hopes of finding somewhere with food and shelter. By returning your yard to nature, you can create an oasis for bees, birds, frogs, butterflies, and other local wildlife that are facing more and more challenges from habitat loss and climate change.
These California native plants at an Ocean Friendly Garden in Los Angeles are a great example of the color and beauty of a biodiverse green space.
When we plant our yards and outdoor spaces with habitat-supporting native plants, we can restore the health and connectivity of our ecosystems throughout our communities. The complex root systems of native plants filter and absorb stormwater runoff, protecting our waterways and coasts from pollution. Native plants are locally adapted to not need chemical fertilizers, and by supporting beneficial insects and animals that keep pests in check, pesticides are not needed either. Thoughtful, ocean-friendly landscaping can prevent chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides from harming our aquatic ecosystems.
While artificial turf can seem like a quick and easy solution, its environmental impact has been misrepresented to consumers. Producing more landfill-bound plastic that pollutes water, increases urban heat, and offers no habitat is not eco-friendly. Touting artificial turf as “water saving” while it pollutes our waterways and beaches with microplastics and runoff is not an environmental trade-off we should encourage.
By choosing plants, not plastic, we can build biodiversity in our communities while making them climate resilient for the future.
The Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Gardens program encourages the use of nature-based solutions to prevent urban runoff and create beautiful, sustainable, climate-resilient green spaces. Learn more about Ocean Friendly Gardens and find a chapter near you to get involved.