Thursday, February 27, 2014

When Swapping Your Grass for Cash, Plant Natives Rather than Plasti-turf

Pardon the interruption from the post series I've recently undertaken, but this topic is too timely not to address. What follows is the text of a letter I hope to share with local Water District and Watershed Management leadership.

On all counts -- aesthetic, functional, environmental (including water use), practical, and personal safety -- I am opposed to the notion of encouraging use of artificial turf in residential and commercial landscapes, especially in hot, fire-prone climates of Southern California. 

After having discussed the pros and cons with many colleagues in the landscape industry, I gave the topic considerable thought. My remaining unanswered concerns include:

  • How can one expose so much surface area such as on artificial turf to harsh sunlight and not be concerned about environmental consequences of photo-degradation?*
  • As the product ages and it is subject to normal wear and tear, how might small released particles and toxic chemicals released therefrom affect watersheds and our ocean**? What about impact on air quality?
  • Although there are alternatives using natural gravel, underlayment containing ground up used tires is a popular subsurface for artificial turf. It is known that toxic chemicals are used in the manufacture of tires. As these bits of old tires break down over time, what is the expected impact on underlying soil, groundwater and watersheds in terms of toxicity?***
  • How to mitigate contribution to landfills of non-recyclable portions of artificial turf. (Even for the ones claiming to be fully recyclable, will they be? What would be the mechanism to ensure recycling takes place? Do we even yet have an effective mechanism for recycling carpeting?)
  • How does artificial turf address urban/suburban heat island effects? global climate change?
  • How will artificial turf behave during a firestorm? How will it affect a resident and their home's chance of survival? (How) will it affect air quality?

 * Believe independent studies are needed. Manufacturer studies seem to focus on product useful life, and do not address environmental impacts. We already know about human health impacts and environmental consequences of other plastic products. Why should we replace plastic bags in the environment with bits of artificial turf? 

** Article about study on plastic pollution in the ocean:

In terms of aesthetics, I feel it is always better to use a material in a way that it is not trying to look like something it is not. Have not yet found a fake grass that comes close to looking or feeling like the real thing, and I have been to a lot of trade shows and events where vendors showcase their products. Manufacturing companies' salespeople and marketing departments might be doing a very successful job of promoting their products -- convincing a lot of people that artificial turf is attractive. While it might look good on television and on websites, up-close, in person is a different matter.

Functionally and practically, it depends what one's primary use is for the surface. Frankly, I see so many superior alternatives to artificial turf that I would not even consider installing it. There are low-water-using turf species, native grasses and grass blends, playground bark mulches, and other play surfaces, to name a few. Flame or embers will melt it, so if one uses a backyard fire pit or cooking device it should not be located nearby. Where pet waste is a concern, natural surfaces (even good old dirt) seem much easier to maintain than artificial turf. If I were a mother, I would much rather my children play in dirt (better yet, a native meadow) than on artificial turf.

Aesthetics and function are of course matters of personal preference. However, whether we are landscapers, product manufacturers or suppliers, watershed managers, or managers of water districts, we are in a position to affect how people and their activities relate to the world around us. My hope is that we can work together to find ways to help people live comfortably and beautifully, in harmony with nature.

A residential garden designer, my work focuses on using principles of sustainability to create landscapes of enduring beauty. 

Thank you for this opportunity to provide input on the topic of artificial turf, especially its potential use in residential settings. If you have any questions or concerns and would like to further discuss, my contact information follows.



Janis Hatlestad
Better Earth Garden Design
Woodland Hills, CA


Brent Morgan said...

I don't see the use for artificial turf in residential settings either. However, I can see its appeal on playing fields such as football fields that get a lot of repetitive use.

Janis said...

Fields for organized sports are not my priority, but I appreciate that there are other viewpoints. Thank you for sharing your voice here, Brent.

Janis said...

My post is to speak out of concern for potential widespread use of artificial turf. In many of our local areas it is being rebated as replacement landscaping in residential "cash for grass" programs. Some localities that are not currently rebating it, may be pressured to do so. It is being heavily marketed in big box stores as well at landscape trade shows. Several homeowners, knowing I do sustainable, residential landscape design, have asked what I think of artificial turf as lawn replacement. I do not include it in my designs.

Unknown said...

I can't think of anything I'd be less likely to put in my yard than shredded tires (ugh!) and artificial turf. As you point out, there are so many other things that would be better for kids, dogs and wildlife, the finer aspects of garden life. Most lawns are not used so planting native plants would sequester carbon, produce oxygen, increase wildlife habitat and reduce water use. And if you think you won't water artificial turf, wait until it gets sticky with tree sap, coated with fecal material or soaked in urine. I'm glad you posted this!

Barbara E said...

Artificial turf gets quite hot - which is a problem for playing fields as well.

As far as maintenance goes, I saw a mow-blow service blowing off artificial turf. This causes air pollution through the burning of fossil fuels for the blower and the release of airborne dust particles that catch in the plastic.

In the many ways you mention and these two others, green plastic is not a good lawn substitute.

Janis said...

Very good points, Barbara. Thank you for adding your comments.