The Climate Column

Plastic grass is a curse – it smothers nature, destroys the seafloor and has a large carbon footprint

With many UK bird and small mammal populations collapsing in numbers, we need to be replacing our lawns not with plastic but wildflowers, writes Donnachadh McCarthy

Monday 28 June 2021 09:49 BST
Wildlife is destroyed by plastic grass, and staggering emissions are released into the atmosphere while making it
Wildlife is destroyed by plastic grass, and staggering emissions are released into the atmosphere while making it (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

During lockdown I had some chats with a neighbour over the garden-wall, as they pottered in their garden. Having a passion for encouraging others to grow their own food, I shared some soft-fruit cuttings with them. Some months later, as I peeked over the fence to see how the gooseberries and redcurrants were getting on, I was horrified to see the whole garden had been covered in plastic grass or “astro turf” as it’s commonly known.

They are now selling their house, but the abominable plastic grass will remain.

Many rich professionals, away at weekends at their second home in the countryside, seem to have decided that plastic grass is the way to eliminate garden maintenance.

The homes on our street were built in the 1840s or earlier, and our gardens are nearly two centuries old. Despite being in Peckham, in south London, we are blessed with plenty of sparrows, tits and robins visiting us and the trees are so old, we sometimes hear woodpeckers.

A fox has built its den twice in the last two years with the cutest cubs you have ever seen and we get the occasional excitement of summer visits from bats swooping low to eat the insects in the air above our gardens.

So why do I dislike plastic grass so much? I confess to an instinctual gut dislike of it, but beyond my prejudice there are many ecological reasons for objecting strongly to them.

Laying a layer of impermeable plastic on the soil suffocates it. The earthworms, other natural organisms and the fungi that thrive in our soils are all killed. Plants are likewise eliminated, and all sources of food for insects are destroyed. This in turn means all sources of food for birds, frogs or hedgehogs are eliminated.

This is important as, with the destruction of huge swathes of nature in our countryside by industrial farming, UK gardens are increasingly a refuge for what is left of our wildlife. Since the 1970s, 41 per cent of UK wildlife species have been in decline, so wildlife needs every bit of help it can get from our gardens. Hedgehog numbers have fallen by 95 per cent, turtle doves by 98 per cent and common toads by 68 per cent.

Around 87 per cent of UK households have a garden, which mounts up to 23 million gardens, covering an area of 433,000 hectares or one fifth the size of Wales. But it is not just garden wildlife that is eliminated by plastic grass – it will also potentially destroy wildlife on our seafloor also, as installers recommend that every square metre of plastic grass requires about 4kg of sand for its foundations.

So, the average garden of about 190m2 would consume more than three-quarters of a tonne of sand as the substrate for the plastic grass. About a fifth of UK sand and gravel is dredged up from the seabeds off the UK. Each sand-dredger operating off the coast, dredges up 2,600 tonnes per hour, as it destroys everything in its wake on the seabed.

As we reported last week, this dredging and bottom-trawling releases staggering amounts of carbon into the ocean waters above them.

Then there are the carbon emissions from the manufacturing of plastic grass. Almost all are made from petroleum derivatives such as polypropylene, polyethene or polyurethane. Polypropylene’s global carbon emissions are estimated to be about 84 million tonnes, which is the equivalent of about a quarter of all UK territorial carbon emissions.

Plastic grass only lasts from about 10 to 20 years and, as the recycling of plastic is difficult, most plastic grass ends up in landfill or being incinerated, causing yet more pollution.

In addition, the washing and wear and tear of the plastic grass, creates micro-plastics that will be washed down the drain to eventually pollute marine environments.

Do not get me wrong. I am not advocating we should all have swathes of manicured lawns. Whilst these at least do not smother earthworms to death, they do not provide much food or habitats for wildlife life such as hedgehogs or frogs.

Alternatives to plastic or real grass include ponds, which encourage frogs, toads, newts and a host of birds and insects to your garden. You can thickly plant the garden borders with soft-fruit beds, which once established take little maintenance and will gift you with delicious fresh fruit for breakfast for many years to come.

Replacing manicured grass with wild-flower meadows, rather than plastic grass, will drastically reduce the maintenance and watering that is required for lawns if you are a busy professional or parent. 

With many UK bird and small mammal populations collapsing in numbers, we need to be replacing our lawns not with plastic but with wildflowers, edible shrubs and a mixture of natural habitats.

Having savoured the gifts of nature during lockdown, let’s protect and repair her by making our gardens nature-friendly, rather than adding to the destruction. And let’s demand that our local councils, farmers and governments do the same.

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