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Artificial Grass: A Viable Option for Lawns?

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jul 15, 2021

Recently, artificial grass has begun to grow in popularity as a low-maintenance option for residential lawns and landscaping. Synthetic grass used to be found almost exclusively in sports fields and athletic complexes. However, innovative designs that more realistically replicate traditional lawns have allowed artificial grass to make inroads into the residential market. In this short article, we take an in-depth look at the pros and cons of grass for the space around your home.

Lawn BBQ

The Dark Side of Conventional Lawns 

When you travel to many rural regions in the so-called "under-developed" world, one of the first things that stand out to travelers and tourists is that most homes are shrouded in vegetation. Instead of well-manicured lawns on either side of a driveway, most families dedicate every available space to cultivating valuable plants. A typical adobe home in the Mayan territories of Guatemala, for example, might be surrounded by several varieties of native fruit trees, with vining gourds climbing up the roof and over the window sills. Medicinal plants hide the small footpath that leads up to the home. Meanwhile, free-range chickens wander throughout this edible jungle forest.

These "forest gardens" are ubiquitous worldwide and stand in sharp contrast to the uniform patches of green grass that dominate the North American residential landscape. The history of lawns is generally traced back to aristocrats in Europe. They wanted to show their peasant neighbors that their vast wealth "afforded" them the ability to leave parts of their land to grow up with grass instead of plowing up every field for crops. Fast forward a couple of centuries, and lawns continue to be a symbol of prestige. In the battle for the greenest grass possible, pesticides and gas mowers are still prevalent around many homes. 

Consider the following:

  • Over 90 million pounds of herbicides are applied on lawns and gardens per year. Glyphosate, the most common of these herbicides, is increasingly being linked to several types of cancer.
  • Americans use around 600 million gallons of gas every year to mow their lawns, resulting in close to 12 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • The EPA estimates that at least 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled annually by carelessly filling lawn mowers, leading to soil and water contamination.
  • The average household uses almost 100 gallons of water every day for outdoor use, primarily to water their thirsty lawns.
Xeriscaped Yard Alpen High Performance Products
Xeriscaped Yard. Photo Credit: Alpen High Performance Products

Given these statistics, replacing a conventional lawn might seem like a no-brainer for homeowners who want to reduce their carbon footprint and limit their exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals. Here at Rise, we have written extensively about alternative landscaping options to the emblematic green turn lawn that has become the traditional standard. Check out our articles on how to grow a lawn without chemicals, the role of permaculture zones in changing your landscape design, and xeriscaping opportunities to reduce water consumption drastically.

Despite the practicality of these alternative landscaping options, many homeowners across North America will scoff at the idea of getting rid of their green lawn. Might there be a way for homeowners to enjoy a green lawn without the environmental costs associated with pesticide use, water use for irrigation, and fossil fuel use for maintenance?

Turf Samples

What Is Artificial Grass?

The first widely recognized use of artificial grass was in 1966 when the Houston Astros baseball team installed artificial grass in their indoor stadium after several failed attempts to grow grass. Today, artificial grass or turf refers to a material made of synthetic, manufactured fibers, made to look like natural grass. The individual fibers of the turf are typically made from a blend of materials, including nylon, polypropylene, or polyethylene, that are then connected to a backing material. In some applications, a base material is added between the fibers. The backing material stabilizes and cushions the artificial turf's area.

SYNLawn Artificial Grass Options
SYNLawn Artificial Grass Options. Photo Credit: SYNLawn

What Types of Artificial Grass Are Available Today? 

In the past, most artificial grasses looked like an ugly green carpet, with minimal resemblance to natural grass. In more recent times, however, artificial turf manufacturers have gone to great lengths to make their products resemble natural grass. In an attempt to capture a larger share of the residential landscaping markets, artificial grass manufacturers now offer their products with synthetic grass blades colored in different shades of green and in various pile heights. SynLawn, one leading artificial grass company, actually manufactures their synthetic lawns to appear like other types of grass, such as Augustine grass or Fescue turf.

Some companies are trying to reduce reliance on petro-chemicals in their turf products. SynLawn, for example, incorporates a high percentage of bio-based polymers primarily sourced from soybeans in the manufacture of their different artificial grass designs.


How Much Water and Energy Does Artificial Grass Save?

One of the main "selling points" for artificial grass is that it is purported to drastically reduce the energy and water requirements associated with regular lawn care. Synthetic fibers made from polypropylene will not need to be irrigated nor watered. Based on the statistics we shared above, this "advantage" of artificial turf certainly appears to help reduce the carbon footprint and water-use footprint of North American households.

However, it is essential to consider the embodied energy footprint that comes with artificial turf. Instead of purchasing seed at your local store and spreading it over your lawn in early spring, artificial grass is sourced from petrochemical raw materials and is energy-intensive in its manufacture. Many turf products are manufactured overseas, which further increases its embodied energy footprint. Many artificial grass installers will require an almost perfectly flat surface for installation, thus requiring heavy machinery to compact and level the land around your home. This feature requires even more fossil fuel use.

It is important to note that natural grasslands and prairies can act as a carbon "sink." They essentially capture excess amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and deposit that carbon in the fertile soil. Indeed, most lawns do not boast the carbon capturing potential of natural prairies. But, turning your yard into a "prairie garden" could be another strategy that allows homeowners to do their part to sequester carbon.

Is Artificial Grass Healthy?

A drawback associated with artificial grass is that there are several health concerns related to these products. Many turf products come pre-treated with biocides. This step is taken because some studies have found that synthetic turf has been associated with an increased risk of infections from methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Recent laboratory tests carried about by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) find that many turf products contain the highly toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that exposure to PFAS has a host of health effects associated, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease. That's not exactly what you want in the areas where your children play.

Easy Turf
Photo Credit: Easy Turf

How Is Artificial Grass Made?

Most artificial grass products are manufactured in a fashion that is similar to carpets. A solid backing is the foundation of the turf, while the individual blades are machine-stitched onto the backing. Most artificial grass manufacturers include brown thatch fibers that mimic the look of dead grass that you would see on a natural grass lawn for residential applications.

Synthetic Grass Store
Photo Credit: Synthetic Grass Store

How Long Does Artificial Grass Last?

Most artificial turf companies will offer a standard warranty of between 2 and 8 years. In general, homeowners can expect the higher quality grass products to last between 10 to 15 years, depending on the use. Though some manufacturers claim that artificial turf is recyclable, many local recycling operations will not take artificial grass. This issue has led to large volumes of artificial grass is being sent to landfills. According to one recent investigative report, "used artificial turf is expected to produce 1 million to 4 million tons of waste in the next 10 years, and it has nowhere to go, according to solid waste industry analysts."

Rymar Grass
Photo Credit: Rymar Grass

What Are the Pros and Cons of Artificial Grass? 

From the manufacturer's publicity claims, it might seem like artificial grass is a sustainable wonder product. They report that it can reduce your carbon footprint, drastically lower your monthly water bill, and free up your summer evenings so that you don't have to pull out the mower from the garage. Authentic problems are associated with conventional lawns in North America. But, replacing natural grass with its manufactured counterpart made from petrochemicals is probably a step backward on the scale of environmental friendliness.

SYNLawn Artificial Grass
SYNLawn Artificial Grass. Photo Credit: SYNLawn Seattle

Besides having a vast embodied energy footprint, artificial grass also essentially eliminates the biophilic benefits of spending time outdoors. Moreover, there are several serious health concerns related to artificial turf products that homeowners should consider. If you decide that artificial grass is the best option for your home, we recommend looking for products made from bio-based fibers. And also, it might not hurt to leave some space for some natural plants as well!

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-15T19:45:21+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.