A couple of decades ago, artificial turf was often a thin carpet atop a hard surface—rough on the knees as well as the eyes. Athletes playing on it complained that it wore their legs out. But as the product improved, so did homeowners’ interest. From the US to the UK, artificial grass retailers have seen sales tick up during pandemic lockdowns, when housebound property owners put their money toward home improvements. Indeed, Google Trends shows a worldwide surge in searches for “artificial grass” during the middle of 2020.
Even the most famous grass enthusiasts like the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club are open to the idea. The organization behind the Wimbledon championship is trialing hybrid court surfaces—real grass weaved with plastic fibers—to promote lawn tennis in climates worldwide and extend the season in the UK.
Still, all of this fake grass sprouting across the planet has sparked backlash. Some of the biggest protests have been in Australia, where synthetic turf installations became more common in home gardens and playing fields during the Millennium Drought—a roughly 12-year dry spell that ended in 2009. Many cities and regions faced extreme water restrictions that included a total ban on lawn watering in some areas…
The most obvious environmental problem with artificial grass is it’s rooted in the biggest climate nemesis of all: fossil fuel. Synthetic turf is made from a stew of petroleum-based components, making it nearly impossible to recycle. At the end of an artificial lawn’s useful life, which is about 15 years, it will likely go to a landfill or be incinerated…
Yet, even if artificial turf becomes easy to recycle, real grass will still in some ways be greener. Grass naturally absorbs carbon dioxide. Its soil supports wildlife from worms to birds. There are varieties for almost any kind of climate. Unless, of course, that climate doesn’t have enough water.
The legacy of the suburban lawn will be long indeed if the manicured green grass is replaced by green artificial turfs for decades. If it is no longer grass, is the desirable part the color or the nostalgia?
As noted elsewhere in the article, the artificial turf is not the only option. In places like Las Vegas, a rockscape or desert setting is more appropriate. Elsewhere, a yard may be filled with native plants or a garden. If the purpose of the lawn is to provide a connection to nature for the residents, these options can fit the bill in a way that artificial lawns cannot.
The real trick would seem to be creating an artificial turf that better mimics a grass lawn in look and feel without negative environmental impact. A soft and lush lawn that does not need watering, does not rely heavily on fossil fuels, and is similar to the image many Americans have of the proper yard of a single-family home? That may be the lawn worth keeping in yards across the country.