Should I Convert My Grass Lawn To Artificial Turf?

Dear EarthTalk: Artificial turf has been popular on sports fields for decades for a variety of reasons, but is it also a good environmentally friendly option for residential lawns?

—Sharon Chinchilla, Ft. Lauderdale, FL

The use of artificial turf for residential lawns is a growing trend across America, notably in regions where water supplies have a tough time keeping up with demand. Advocates of artificial turf point out, for example, that a whopping 56,000 gallons of water are applied each year to the average residential lawn.

Statistics also show that the mowing, watering and fertilizing of natural grass contribute as much as two percent to U.S. overall fossil fuel consumption. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lawn care activities also account for about 10 percent of hazardous air pollution coast-to-coast. And studies on Long Island in New York State have shown that up to 60 percent of the synthetic nitrogen applied to lawns there ends up contaminating local ground water supplies.

But given the choice between real or artificial turf, most environmental advocates still prefer real grass. Besides helping to create the oxygen we breathe through photosynthesis, plants (including grass) are an integral part of any living ecosystem. They filter water and sunlight down into the soil where worms, insects and moisture work in concert to hold the soil firm. And they prevent flooding while providing habitat and nourishment for birds, bees and other wildlife.

In contrast, synthetic turf is made out of petroleum-derived plastic. In cases where fake turf is installed improperly, chemicals from the plastic can seep into the ground below and potentially contaminate groundwater. Some formulations of synthetic turf require infill such as silicon sand or granulated rubber, either of which may contain potentially toxic heavy metals that can leach into the water table below. The granules have also been known to produce a distinctly unpleasant odor at times. And consumers trying to reduce their carbon footprints should keep in mind that manufacturing and shipping artificial turf, like any synthetic product, generates large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

Nonetheless, because of concerns about water usage, some municipalities are trying to encourage homeowners to switch to synthetic turf. Back in 2002 city managers in drought-ridden Las Vegas began offering homeowners rebates of $1 per square foot to replace their thirsty natural grass lawns with synthetic turf. And in July 2007 board members of southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which serves 18 million people across six counties, initiated a similar program to try to make a dent in outdoor water use in the region, 50 to 70 percent of which is devoted to the watering of residential lawns.

Of course, installing artificial turf isn’t the only way to minimize the environmental impact of one’s yard. Converting grass lawns over to less resource intensive landscaping—known as “xeriscaping”—is also catching on. Drought-tolerant native shrubs, plants and ornamental grasses don’t require large amounts of water, fertilizer or pesticides to survive. Many groundcover plants naturally hold back weeds and contribute to the health of the soil. Even rock gardens are attractive and essentially maintenance-free. Given all the natural alternatives, homeowners need not convert their back yards over to fake turf.