Grass – real vs. synthetic lawns and the environment

I’d be the first to admit that a well manicured lawn is a pleasing sight, but I hate to think how many hours of my life I used to spend mowing grass and other related activities. Often maintaining the average lawn is not only time intensive, it can also have a considerable environmental impact.

So is synthetic grass the way to go? Surely it couldn’t be, after all synthetic grass is made from plastic?

It really depends on who you ask and there are all sorts of compelling arguments for both. So let’s take a look at some of those:

Advantages of natural grass

  • Supports an ecosystem of organisms that break down pathogens
  • Acts as a food source for some insect and animals
  • Acts as a carbon sink and produces oxygen
  • Has “air conditioning” properties, helping to cool an area
  • Grass can act as a filter, preventing contaminants reaching the water table

Disadvantages of natural lawn

  • Maintenance is water intensive
  • Pesticides, fungicide and herbicides may be required
  • Greenhouse gas emissions associated with mowing and other maintenance equipment.
  • May require additional inputs such as fertilizer; which could be fossil fuel based.
  • Often lawns are not made up of grass species native to an area. The grasses can then take hold in the wider local environment, crowding out native species.

Advantages of synthetic lawn

  • Can be made from recycled (more accurately, upcycled or downcycled) and recyclable (?) materials such as polypropylene or polyethylene
  • No watering required
  • No fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides need to be used
  • Few greenhouse gas emissions in maintenance (no mowing, edging etc.)

Disadvantages of synthetic grass

  • Fossil fuel and other synthetic chemicals are used in its production
  • Pathogens may not be broken down. Some artificial lawns are treated with anti-bacterial chemicals to perform this action, and those can have their own negative environmental implications.
  • Other contaminants may pass through to the water table
  • Can contribute to the urban heat island effect

The above points are just in relation to the environment – when you start getting into costs, aesthetics, time and other issues, it becomes even more complex.

Note that with natural lawns though that some of the disadvantages listed can be negated or minimized through various techniques, such as water saving practices, manual push mowers, the usage of natural fertilizers and composts etc. However, often these more eco-friendly strategies can also mean more manual labor.

Given synthetic grass also has some powerful benefits, the decision of real vs. fake can still be very confusing; but here’s an important point:

Remember that having a lawn isn’t compulsory – native trees, flowers and shrubberies in the midst of mulch beds in place of a lawn are also an option and can help get around most of the issues associated with both synthetic and natural grass options; while offering the benefits of each. They also look great and also provide a habitat for other creatures.