The tragedy of lawns and the poison in turf
Story at-a-glance -
- Large swaths of chemical- and water-intensive grass span 163,800 km2, or 40.47 million acres, in the U.S., which is an area three times larger than any irrigated crop
- Lawns, which are mowed so often that they’re unable to produce even seeds, do little to support local wildlife and are so barren, environmentally speaking, that some experts compare them to concrete
- Sixty-seven million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns every year, and 580 million gallons of gasoline are used in lawnmowers
- Native plants, with their deep root systems, absorb and retain water better than lawns, which have shallower roots; rather than soaking into the earth, rainwater runs off lawns, carrying chemicals into nearby waterways
- According to the U.S. EPA, of the 320 gallons of water the average American family uses every day, 30% is for outdoor uses; of this, more than half goes toward watering lawns and gardens, an amount totaling nearly 9 billion gallons daily
- Synthetic turf, which is used as a grass replacement in parks, sports stadiums, schools and other areas across the U.S., poses another environmental threat in the form of PFAS chemicals
- When it comes to your yard, the less lawn, the better; choose native plants and food-producing plants instead
Some might call it an obsession, others a passion, but the quest to achieving a perfectly manicured green lawn is one shared by a significant number of Americans. One survey found that 81% of Americans have a lawn,1 which necessitate an extreme amount of resources, both financial and in the form of sweat equity, to maintain.
What has become a symbol of the American dream is, however, more of a tragedy. The Washington Post even described lawns as a “soul-crushing timesuck” that most of us are better off without,2 and this isn’t too far off. What is even worse than the thankless hours they demand for maintenance, however, is the damage they’re doing to the environment, one yard at time.
Why Lawns Are an ‘Ecological Disaster’
Gizmodo recently pinned lawns as an “ecological disaster,”3 citing native gardening writer Sara Stein, who summed up the problems with lawns rather succinctly:4
“Continual amputation is a critical part of lawn care. Cutting grass regularly — preventing it from reaching up and flowering — forces it to sprout still more blades, more rhizomes, more roots, to become an ever more impenetrable mat until it is what its owner has worked so hard or paid so much to have: the perfect lawn, the perfect sealant through which nothing else can grow—and the perfect antithesis of an ecological system.”
The large swaths of chemical- and water-intensive grass span 163,800 km2, or 40.47 million acres, in the U.S., which is an area three times larger than any irrigated crop.5 Lawns, which are mowed so often that they’re unable to produce even seeds, do little to support local wildlife and are so barren, environmentally speaking, that some experts compare them to concrete.6
While using up valuable land that could otherwise grow native plants and even weeds, which are popular food sources for pollinators, lawns soak up fertilizers and pesticides at an alarming rate. Gizmodo noted:
“We also dump roughly 10 times more fertilizer on our lawns than on crops, notes Columbia’s Earth Institute.
These fertilizers and the 67 million pounds of pesticides with which we drench our lawns ever year degrade, releasing compounds like nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than CO2. Potential damages from agricultural fertilizer runoff alone were estimated by one study to cost $157 billion annually.”
According to the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) serving the Kansas City metropolitan area, 67 million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns every year, and 580 million gallons of gasoline are used in lawnmowers. “A gas-powered lawn mower pollutes as much in one hour as 40 automobiles driving,” MARC noted.7
Lawns present problems both above and below the surface. Native plants, with their deep root systems, absorb and retain water better than lawns, which have shallower roots. Some common native plants can have roots that reach down nearly 16 feet, while common turf grass has roots that are only inches deep.8 Rather than soaking into the earth, rainwater runs off lawns, carrying chemicals into nearby waterways.
Massive Impact on Water Scarcity
New York Times author Michael Pollan was one of the first to tackle the absurdity of the pursuit of lush green lawns — which he says are a “symbol of everything that’s wrong with our relationship to the land”9 — over environmentally friendly and productive landscapes like vegetable gardens, meadows or orchards. It was 1989 when Pollan wrote in The New York Times, “Why Mow?” adding:10
“Lawns, I am convinced, are a symptom of, and a metaphor for, our skewed relationship to the land. They teach us that, with the help of petrochemicals and technology, we can bend nature to our will. Lawns stoke our hubris with regard to the land. What is the alternative?
To turn them into gardens. I’m not suggesting that there is no place for lawns in these gardens or that gardens by themselves will right our relationship to the land, but the habits of thought they foster can take us some way in that direction.”
The issue of water usage on lawns is a major factor in why they’re so detrimental to the environment. According to the U.S. EPA, of the 320 gallons of water the average American family uses every day, 30% is for outdoor uses.
Of this, more than half goes toward watering lawns and gardens, with landscape irrigation estimated to make up nearly one-third of residential water use, an amount totaling nearly 9 billion gallons daily.11
Further, much of this water is wasted because it evaporates, runs off or is misdirected by the wind.12 Making matters worse, runoff from lawns treated with chemicals increases water pollution. On the opposite end of the spectrum, again, are native plants, which require little water to thrive. As noted by the EPA, “Once established, native plants require little water beyond normal rainfall.”13
Gizmodo added, “All America’s farmland consumes 88.5 million acre feet of water a year. Lawns, with a fraction of the land, drink an estimated two-thirds as much.”14
Artificial Turf Isn’t the Answer
Artificial turf eliminates some of the problems of grass, as it doesn’t require chemicals, watering or mowing. But synthetic turf, which is used as a grass replacement in parks, sports stadiums, schools and other areas across the U.S., poses another environmental threat in the form of PFAS chemicals.
In samples of synthetic turf grass tested by the Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental research group, “unexplained levels of fluorine-based compounds” were detected.15
Polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs) include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), one of the highly toxic chemicals used in the production of the Teflon-coated fabrics, and a similar chemical, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).
They’re sometimes called forever chemicals because they persist in the environment. As for health risks, those related to PFASs continue to grow. In May 2015, more than 200 scientists from 40 countries signed the Madrid Statement, which warns about the harms PFAS chemicals and documents the following potential health effects of exposure:16
Disruption of lipid metabolism, and the immune and endocrine systems
Adverse neurobehavioral effects
Neonatal toxicity and death
Tumors in multiple organ systems
Testicular and kidney cancers
Reduced birth weight and size
Decreased immune response to vaccines
Reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty
The ATSDR report further noted evidence of negative liver, cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, reproductive and developmental effects, while other studies have revealed subtle effects such as an increased risk of obesity in children when exposed in utero and lowered immune response.17
The pollution problems posed by existing synthetic turf and that that has been disposed has made it a source of controversy among environmental groups, and research has also pointed to the existence of cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene, in such products.18
More than 11,000 synthetic turf athletic fields exist in the U.S., along with more than 13,000 in Europe,19 and it’s estimated that 1,500 new synthetic turf fields may be installed annually in the U.S.20 While grass isn’t environmentally friendly, replacing it with artificial turf is only swapping one set of problems for another.
Embrace Gardens, Ditch Your Lawn
When it comes to your yard, the less lawn, the better. If you live in a neighborhood with an HOA and a societal expectation to keep a neatly manicured lawn, it may seem impossible to veer from this norm, but allowing nature to return to your yard is becoming more commonplace. According to Ed Osann, senior policy analyst and water efficiency project director with the National Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Water program:21
“We’re on the cusp of a transition that will likely take place over the next 10 to 15 years, away from the conformity of mowed turf … We’re not declaring war on turf or suggesting that we remove every square foot of it. But we want to encourage people to think about whether there are places in their yards that can be converted to allow for a more diverse and sustainable landscape.”
NRDC describes four categories of no-mow yards, each of which offers benefits to wildlife:22
- Unmowed turf grass that’s left to grow wild
- Low-growing turf grasses that require little grooming
- Native landscapes where turf is replaced with native plants and others that thrive locally
- Yards were vegetable gardens and fruit-bearing trees replace turf
Your unmowed yard may contain a combination of these, such as a vegetable garden along with native plants and mowed grass pathways. Some HOAs may be appeased by swatches of manicured lawn bordering the unmowed areas, as it shows the design is intentional, not neglectful.
A number of organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation, Audubon Society, your local Department of Natural Resources and Monarchwatch, will certify your natural yard as a wildlife habitat, which may make you exempt from any HOA rules about mowing. You may even qualify for a property tax exemption.23
To get started, identify native plants that will thrive in your area, and start chipping away at your lawn little by little, gradually expanding the areas that cater to nature and provide you and your surrounding ecosystem with food while whittling away at those that do not.
In speaking with one woman who went against the tide and planted a native garden amongst a sea of lawns, naturalist Lianna Gomori-Ruben wrote in Medium:24
“Social norms are powerful. So is individual choice. Behind the conventional lawn lurks its hidden cost: the sacrifice of our wildlife heritage. But perhaps we can renegotiate these terms to find a new agreement. In our backyards and courtyards, we can choose to cultivate reciprocity with nature.”
Indeed, aside from the practical and environmental reasons to ditch your lawn is an intrinsic one that may speak to the undeniable connection humans have with the natural world. “Clara,” who took the leap and converted her lawn to a wildlife habitat, echoed this, stating:25
“The beauty feeds my soul … The wonder of nature never stops delighting me. I’m thrilled every year when I see a caterpillar — it never gets old. Each swallowtail butterfly is just as wonderful as the first. I feel rewarded that my damage to the planet is mitigated and am hopeful that it doesn’t take that much to undo it. Nature is forgiving if we let her.”
To get started, check out the Audubon’s native plants database,26 which allows you to enter your ZIP code for a list of the best native plants for your area, along with vegetables and fruits that appeal to you. No matter how big or small your yard is, you can make a difference by ditching your lawn and creating a natural refuge instead.
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