The Lawn Problem
On hot days, a friend and I used to sneak away from school and dodge through a gap in the fence to the golf course next to the playing field. There, on the manicured grass, we would roll up our shirts and trouser legs and lie in the sun until we were weak with sunstroke. By the sixth form, I’d progressed to year-round bottled sunshine: golden cans of pungent foam that dyed my skin a glorious shade of bronze within minutes. At university, a baffled boy pointed out the streaks and I added my fake tan to the list of things that lost their currency outside Essex.
Last summer, when my neighbours concreted over their lawn and unfurled lurid rolls of synthetic turf, I bit back my own aversion to fakeness. They passed us their unwanted compost bin over the fence, cheerily announcing they’d have no more garden waste. I was horrified that they had replaced a complex living ecosystem with a slowly degrading plastic sham that would eventually become matted and scraggy and spend hundreds of years leaching toxic chemicals in a landfill site, or be burned into noxious gases. Artificial turf is not only extruded from fossil fuel polymers, but composed of at least two kinds of plastic and therefore cannot be recycled.
Artificial lawns are booming: the global market in plastic turf is expected to exceed £4 billion by 2023. Like a fake tan, fake grass only fools you from a distance. Up close, its vividness, uniformity and occasional creases give it away. (Though like the deliberate flaws in Persian rugs – only Allah’s creations can be perfect – more upmarket brands often have a few yellow strands.)
Sturdy, all-weather fake turf makes sense for sport, and can save water. Before the pandemic, I played five-a-side football every week on a 3G Astroturf pitch. Even in heavy rain, we could carry on without churning up the ground with our boots. But tumbles, dives or slide tackles abrade the skin like carpet burns, and once you’ve picked the crumbs of rubber from the graze, it weeps angrily for days. I’d try not to think about the spit, blood, food, scabs, snot, bird faeces and worse that ended up enmeshed with the underlay and cultured a cornucopia of festering bacteria, unprocessed by soil.
Without soil, insects can’t burrow into the ground and lay eggs, birds can’t tug out worms, roots can’t dig in and buttress the land against erosion or suck up and store water. As artificial lawns and sports fields replace grass, they increase the risk of flooding. Half of all incident rain runs off the surface of artificial turf (carrying microplastics with it), whereas the earth under gardens and parks serves as a sponge, soaking up precipitation in urban settlements and acting as a buffer against flash floods.
Artificial turf also contributes to the problem of urban heat islands. Albedo is a measure of how much of the sun’s radiation is reflected, and how much absorbed. Ice has a higher albedo than seawater, which means melting icecaps not only cause rising sea levels, but also lead to further atmospheric heating. Grass has an albedo of 0.25, close to that of the earth as a whole (0.3); artificial turf has an albedo of 0.08: not much better than asphalt (0.05). On hot days, fake turf can be twice as hot as real grass. That’s bad news for children and pets, worse news for a heating planet. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released today, as some of the largest wildfires on record gush carbon into the atmosphere, notes that the temperature of the earth’s surface has increased faster since 1970 than in any other fifty-year period in the last two thousand years.
The most common species of grass in British parks and lawns is ryegrass: a hardy perennial that germinates quickly. It’s the plant that is mowed to a uniform eight millimetres at Wimbledon, it’s the staple food of many sheep and cows, and its pollen is one of the chief causes of hayfever. Among the blades of ryegrass there are dandelions, mosses, clover, daisies, dock, creeping thistle, buttercups: the flowers of childhood games, and a food source for the pollinators that underwrite the global food supply.
Like other vegetation, grass sequesters carbon. Around a third of the earth’s land is grasslands, but grass only works as a carbon sink if it isn’t continually grazed or mowed. Ranch-owners in the American Midwest are paid to leave grass ungrazed as heavy polluters seek to offset some of their emissions. But the warming effect of managed grasslands now cancels out the cooling effect of unmanaged grasslands. This is especially troubling because grasslands are less vulnerable to wildfires than forest, and may represent a more dependable carbon sink in coming decades.
Meanwhile, forty million acres of land in the US consists of lawns. Maintaining them requires 800 million gallons of mower fuel and three million tonnes of (carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting) fertilisers a year, and they guzzle up to 60 per cent of fresh water in urban areas. In the UK, an area of meadowland larger than Wales has been lost since the 1930s, leaving the country with just 3 per cent of its old unmaintained grasslands. One proposed solution is for councils to stop mowing grass verges, which account for an area as large as Derbyshire. Another might be to rewild golf courses into meadowland. According to some estimates they cover as much land as the homes of 67 million people, but are used by only 1 per cent of us.
As well as golf courses, the impossible standard of the well-kept lawn is associated with Oxbridge colleges, stately homes and middle-class neighbourhoods. They invite and repel; they are markers of waste, conspicuous leisure and exclusion. Virginia Woolf described being shooed off the lawn of a Cambridge college in A Room of One’s Own: ‘This was the turf; there was the path. Only the fellows and scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.’
Fake plastic grass is an abomination, but so are lawns. It’s snobbery that makes most of the difference. Like counterfeit clothes or fake tans, artificial turf is scorned by those who prefer things to be ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’, where they get to define the terms. They are often lucky enough to have not only the resources to maintain an attractive garden but also a social status that is unaffected by an unkempt lawn. For others, there’s gravel, or artificial turf.
There isn’t much that’s ‘natural’ about tidily demarcated, closely cropped, monocultural, pesticide-coated, water-greedy green stubble. Maintaining a patch of blank land on which no food grows, no animal feeds and no carbon is stored is as absurd as installing fake plastic grass.